Pilot Theatre in Run, Rebel, York Theatre Royal, March 10 at 1pm and 7pm; March 11, 2pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
RUN, Rebel has only a short run in York, more of a sprint than a marathon.
However, Pilot Theatre’s premiere is a co-production with regular partners York Theatre Royal, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Derby Theatre and Mercury Theatre, Colchester, ensuring a longer stretch across the theatre canvas for actress, children’s author, screenwriter and playwright Manjeet Mann’s adaptation of her 2020 debut verse novel.
Such has been the impact of Pilot’s stage versions of children’s and young adults’ books The Bone Sparrow, Noughts & Crosses and Crongton Knights that Mann was resolute in wanting the York company to mount the premiere.
Good decision, Manjeet! In return, she has delivered a superb, serious, searing drama that marries her knowledge of stage craft as an actress to how best to present words for maximum impact on stage under Tessa Walker’s astute direction (a Walker directing a play full of running!).
As the title would suggest, both running and rebellion feature, along with a third ‘R’, revolution. Midlands schoolgirl Amber Rai (Jessica Kaur), aged 15, is trapped by her Punjabi family’s rules (or more particularly her heavy-drinking father Harbans’ intransigence); their expectations (arranged marriage, like her sister Ruby (Simran Kular) and her own fears (represented in video designer Daniel Denton’s imagery of “The Man” and cast members cutting roses in bloom).
At the heart of Debbie Duru’s set is what looks like the Rowntree Park skateboard park, rising at both ends, but serving as a running track and symbolic of uphill struggles, topped by metal fencing. This open-plan design facilitates a smooth transition from outdoor to indoor, from school playground to schoolroom to house interior.
Niraj Chag’s compositions add to the Punjabi flavour, while Denton’s ever-changing video backdrop combines street photography with playful schoolroom scrawls, charting the path to revolution encouraged by Amber’s history teacher and imagery of Amber’s mother Surinder (Asha Kingsley) learning the alphabet and English language (leading to a shopping list), along with the aforementioned sinister face in close-up.
Physical theatre is as crucial to Run, Rebel as Mann’s dialogue (where her use of repetition works wonderfully), and significantly the cast is always in view, whether central to a scene or watching from the sides. Pushpinder Chani’s threatening, abusive Harbans, for example, feels ever present.
Physicality is double-edged for Amber. On the one hand, her prowess at running (to a national championship standard) gives her a sense of freedom, but her father threatens to kill her if she goes against his refusal to let her race.
Volume down, telly off, not even five minutes to themselves for mother and daughters when the drunk Harbans staggers through the door demanding his supper. Gradually, however, the seeds of revolution are sown not only by Amer, but by Surinder too, whether hiding her job earnings from him or finding support to break free when needing an escape.
The school world is equally well drawn by Mann, both in Amber’s friendship complications and misunderstandings with David (Kiran Raywilliams) and Tara (Hannah Millward), and in Amber taking out her jealous teenage frustrations by bullying a classmate (Kular again). Chani’s hip History teacher will have everyone wishing he was their teacher too.
Suitable for age ten plus, Run, Rebel carries the warning of containing violence, domestic violence, alcoholism, bullying and discrimination, and it handles such subject matter with righteous ire, in the tradition of a Sixties’ kitchen-sink drama, but also with a deep understanding of different cultures. Mann finds room for flinty humour too, in the school banter and the mother-and-daughter relationships, and hope burns brightly as the fires of revolution spark up.
Walker’s thrilling, moving, uplifting production even revels in a burst of dancing as if from a Bollywood movie climax, when teenage love is a’fluttering too. Kuldip Singh-Barmi’s movement direction matches the physical force of the language, capturing the release of running as much as the running into trouble.
Walker’s cast does Run, Rebel proud, a six of the best led by Kaur’s troubled yet talented Amber, who is not a conventional gilded school sports hero, but a warts-and-all teenager, difficult for even her friends to love at times. Kaur captures all that, putting her in the running for a 2023 Hutch Award. And what better week to present Run, Rebel than in York International Women’s Week.