This one will run and run as Pilot Theatre present premiere of Manjeet Mann’s teenage tale Run, Rebel at Theatre Royal

Keep on running: A scene from Pilot Theatre’s Run, Rebel, with Kuldip Singh-Barmi’s  movement direction the key to capturing the sensation of running. Picture: Pamela Raith

BLACK Country actress and writer Manjeet Mann was feeling directionless.

Her father had died, she was working as a personal trainer as well as treading the boards, but getting out of bed was becoming a struggle. Where had her drive gone?

“I thought, ‘right, I’m going to run a marathon’,” says Manjeet, “I started the 22-week plan, where if I just run the prescribed 20 minutes each day, I’m winning – and I did. I got out of my slump.

“I’m an advocate of how sport can really help your mental health, and that’s when I thought about writing the book.”

The book in question is Manjeet’s multi award-winning debut verse novel, Run, Rebel, now transferred to the stage in Manjeet’s own adaptation, premiered by York company Pilot Theatre in the latest co-production with York Theatre Royal, Mercury Theatre, Colchester, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Derby Theatre.

Children’s author Manjeet, who was a runner in her schooldays, tells the story of schoolgirl Amber Rai, 15, who is trapped by her Punjabi family’s rules, their expectations, her own fears, yet on the running track feels completely free. There the world slows down as her body speeds up.

Jessica Kaur and Pushpinder Chani in Run, Rebel. Picture: Pamela Raith

Defining her place in that tangled world, Amber (played by Jessica Kaur) navigates a difficult home life and bullying at school, her sanctuary coming through running and running fast. Now is the time to kick-start a revolution, for her mother, her sister and herself in a play suitable for 11-year-olds and upwards that addresses violence, domestic violence, alcoholism, bullying and discrimination and makes reference to “honour” killings.

“Running is Amber’s one form of escape, and that story partly comes from personal experience at school,” says Manjeet, who now lives by the sea, where she swims every day, weather permitting.

“The other symbolism of running is that life is a  marathon, not a sprint, and there will be knockbacks and injuries along the way.”

The name of Amber was chosen with significance too. “I like my main protagonists’ names to have meaning. Amber has a few meanings, depending on what culture you’re from. Amber is a healing stone and a stone for courage too,” says Manjeet, explaining her choice.

She had been equally particular in seeking out Pilot Theatre for the premiere, aware of the impact of their co-productions with the York, Colchester, Coventry and Derby theatres since they forged a partnership in 2018 to develop, produce and present theatre for younger audiences, adapted from young adult novels.

Run, Rebel follows Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses, Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights and Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow on to the touring stage, this time directed by Tessa Walker with a combination of physical theatre  and “mesmerising visuals”.

Jessica Kaur, front, as Amber, with Asha Kingsley and Simran Kular in Pilot Theatre’s production of Manjeet Mann’s Run, Rebel. Picture: Pamela Raith

As Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson reflects: “Our project has sought to bring brand new stories to the stage for young adults and secondary school-age children, introducing them to characters who are living and experiencing the world as they are too in the 2020s.

“The goal has been to inspire an expansion and diversification of the range of work that is made and programmed for this age group, including on the school curriculum: we’ve aimed to enable theatres and schools to offer to young people and their carers and educators, narratives that are fresher and may feel more immediately relevant and relatable to their lives, than might be said of existing set and ‘classic’ texts.”

Hence Manjeet and Tessa’s determination that Pilot “would be the very best company to collaborate with”.

“I’d worked with a Tessa at Birmingham Rep, where I was an associate for a couple of years, when she was a mentor as well as working on projects with me, so we became great friends,” recalls Manjeet, whose two solo tour shows, Flying Solo and A Dangerous Woman, were directed by Tessa.

“The book came out in March 2020 – what a great year to become an author! – and she read it in 2021. I said I could really see it as a play, and after we did research and development with Arts Council funding, she thought, ‘Yes, this does have legs’.”

Unbeknown to Manjeet, Tessa gave a copy of the first draft to Esther Richardson, a draft that Manjeet considered to be “rubbish”. Nevertheless, Esther, who had done a previous R&D project with Manjeet, had “really liked” the author’s second book, 2021’s The Crossing. So far, so good.

Manjeet Mann: Novelist, playwright and actress

“Then I told her it would only be Pilot that I would want to do Run, Rebel on stage.” A production was born, and Manjeet took on her new writing challenge, adapting a story for the theatre. “It’s been a real learning curve,” she says. “I was naïve going into it, thinking ‘it’s my book, it’ll be easier for me to adapt, right? I’m not reinventing the wheel’. But I was!

“The first draft was very much just the book on stage, and then I started doing something very different with it, and now the play is a mix of the two. I found that things in the book can go in a different order on stage, and what drives a book  doesn’t necessarily drive what’s going on on stage.

“With Tessa being not only an amazing director, but a great dramaturg [script editor] too, it became really fun to do, especially when I put the book down, because I knew the story, and just let the play live.”

Has Manjeet participated in the rehearsals? “As an actor, I know what it’s like to have the writer in the room,” she says. “Tessa said, ‘Come in as often as you want’, but I think it can be stifling to be there.

“It’s best to leave it to the directors and actors, so I was only there on the first three days for the readthrough.”

Running is at the core of Run, Rebel. “The cast has been working with movement director Kuldip Singh-Barmi, who’s fabulous, to represent ‘running’ with lots of movement sequences in the performance,” says Manjeet.

Pilot Theatre’s poster for Run, Rebel, running (what else!) at York Theatre Royal from March 7 to 11

“I remember watching a comedian, Richard Gadd, who ran on a treadmill for the entire show, Monkey See Monkey Do [his story of training for the Man’s Man Final in Mansfield, ‘the ultimate competition of manly masculinity’]. That was awesome! The running in Run, Rebel won’t be too literal; it’s more showing running in a stylistic way, which really works.”

Manjeet’s next book had been scheduled for publication in 2023 until the task of adapting Run, Rebel for Pilot’s premiere took precdence during the past year. “It’s now coming out in June 2024,” she says

“It’s another verse novel, with another underdog , another female protagonist, set in India. She’s a teenager who gets accused of being a witch and then comes back later to take her revenge.

“There are 2,000 deaths a year of women accused of being witches, but the true fuigure is probably higher because they’re not all reported. The women are burnt or hanged from a tree, or witch doctors give them something that will kill them in the end, like having chillis put down their throat. It’s horrific.”

The title? Wait and see: it is yet to be confirmed with the publishers.

Pilot Theatre in Run, Rebel at York Theatre Royal, March 7 to 11, 7pm, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; 1pm, Wednesday to Friday matinees; 2pm, Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623568 or

Copyright of The Press, York

How Australian writer Shakthi and York’s Pilot Theatre came together to tell Subhi’s tale from inside a detention centre

Yaamin Chowdhury as Rohingya refugee Subhi in Pilot Theatre’s The Bone Sparrow. Picture: Robert Day

YORK company Pilot Theatre’s world premiere of The Bone Sparrow is international, not only in its subject matter of asylum seekers but in its journey from page to stage.

Artistic director Esther Richardson and her cast have ‘met’ playwright S. Shakthidharan only on Zoom, although he does plan to travel from Australia to Britain later during the tour of a co-production mounted with York Theatre Royal, Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Mercury Theatre, Colchester.

Shakthi, as he is known for short and on the corner of his Zoom screen for this interview, is a writer, storyteller, composer and film and theatre director-producer, from western Sydney, with Sri Lankan heritage and Tamil ancestry.

“The commission came from Esther. She contacted me out of the blue,” says Shakthi. “She’d heard about the play I wrote and premiered in Australia in 2019 [Counting And Cracking], and I think she’d read the script.”

This was no ordinary debut play. Staged by Belvoir and Co-Curious at the 2019 Sydney and Adelaide Festivals, his script won the Victorian Premier’s Literature Prize and the New South Wales Premier’s Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting; the three-hour epic production won seven Helpmann and three Sydney Theatre Awards.

“Esther had been interested in adapting Zana Fraillon’s book for some time and so she approached me,” recalls Shakti. “When I read it, I immediately connected with it because I’d worked with a lot of asylum seekers in Australia and was familiar with the different types of stories that were being told.”

In the story by children and young adults’ novelist Fraillon, Subhi is a 12-year-old Rohingya refugee boy, born in an Australian permanent detention centre after his mother fled the violence of her distant homeland. Life behind the fences is all he has ever known, but as he grows, his imagination grows too, until it is bursting at the limits of his world. 

One night, Jimmie, a scruffy, impatient girl, appears from the other side of the wires, bringing a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it, she relies on Subhi to unravel her own family’s mysterious and moving history, but will Subhi and Jimmie both find a way to freedom as their tales unfold?

Mary Roubos as Jimmie in The Bone Sparrow at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Robert Day

“Subhi, the protagonist, lives in the world of his imagination and doesn’t realise what’s going on around him,” says Shakthi. “Instead, he’s lost in his own charming world, and it’s fascinating that he can have such an enchanting world in such a brutal situation.”

By now, Shakthi had been joined on the Zoom screen by his own young son, awoken from his sleep – it was 8.45pm in Sydney – by the sound of voices.

“So often we are beaten down by the world,” says Shakthi. “We reshape ourselves to fit into it. Subhi’s story is different. In The Bone Sparrow this imaginative young boy discovers within himself a strength that will change the world around him.

“It’s a classic coming-of-age story and yet so much more. The Bone Sparrow is by turns a wondrous tale of epic, mythical adventure; a realistic appraisal of what it means to grow up without freedom; and a vision of renewed solidarity across our supposed divisions.”

Jimmie’s story is as significant to Shakthi as Subhi’s tale. “Immigration, asylum and race is such an important issue in Australia, where it has swung elections for 20 years now and changed government policy,” he says.

“What the children’s relationship does is bring out a common humanity within people, unlike so much of the dialogue, both by those who are well meaning and those with no compassion. Subhi and Jimmie’s friendship obliterates all that: they are two kids who develop a love for each other and have a lot of fun together as well.”

Shakthi continues: “It’s a political play but it’s not a didactic one. I love works that present the complexity of humanity, so the central relationship is so important here.

“What wasn’t in the book so much is that it’s a Rohingya Muslim family. In Zana’s story it’s portrayed with a lighter touch, but I’ve been very keen to have the Rohingya community involved in the project.”

Mackenzie Scott, as Beaver, left, and  Elmi Rashid Elmi,  as Eli, in the detention centre in The Bone Sparrow. Picture: Robert Day

To that end, Esther has liaised with the British Rohingya community, based in Bradford and especially with Sirazul Islam, who began the project as a consultant and is now the assistant director. Like Subhi, Sirazul was born into a refugee camp, and he speaks in public about his experiences of being Rohingya.

In addition, the production team has spoken to other Rohingya people and young sanctuary-seekers, who have been consulted on the script. “The play has a stronger sense of that culture now,” says Shakthi.

Reflecting on his own childhood, he says: “I was born in Sri Lanka in 1982; when the riots happened in 1983, it deepened into civil war, and that’s when my family moved to Chandhai in India, hoping to come back to Sri Lanka.

“That’s the thing about war; it can take a while before anyone calls it a war. We moved first to India, then Singapore, then Australia by the time I was three. We never did go back to Sri Lanka. I’m an Australian, with a lot of family in England as the Tamil diaspora spread everywhere.”

Fraillon’s story of Subhi has many resonances for Shakthi. “I understand what it means not to be in your homeland because of your race, and I understand what it means for a relatively small country to descend into violence,” he says.

“Subhi’s tale is one of growing up distanced from his culture, but he reaches a crisis point in his young life where he finds strength in that culture.

“In my case, my parents pushed me into assimilation in Australia, and so I didn’t really connect with my [Tamil] culture until my late-20s.”

Assimilating meant doing things like supporting Steve Waugh’s Australian cricket team, recalls Shakthi. “I would follow what my white Australian mates were doing, whether it was music or sport,” he says.

The Pilot Theatre company on stage at York Theatre Royal in The Bone Sparrow. Picture: Robert Day

“But then you find your own culture is far more sophisticated than you realised, and through all that pain of leaving your own country, now I really appreciate both my Sri Lankan culture and my Australian culture, so that’s a bonus that other people don’t have: being able to look at the world in different ways. That stops you from being pompous.”

Addressing the thorny subject of immigration, detention centres and sanctuary seekers, Shakthi says: “You can talk about this stuff endlessly politically, but the thing I always come back to is thinking: ‘is it fair to make one group a scapegoat for everyone else?’.

“The Australian government thinks that putting one group of people in detention will be a deterrent to others, but what does it say about that one group? We have to find other ways.

“It’s very easy to make people have knee-jerk reactions on this issue – all that talk of ‘taking our jobs and protecting our borders’ – but the success of the UK, USA, Canada and Australia is co-dependent on welcoming people. You can’t have one without the other. Generally, when people come, they work their butts off, doing jobs others aren’t willing to do.

“That’s why Jimmie’s relationship with Subhi is so vital in the story. She doesn’t apply labels to him. She just sees him as a boy and a friend.”

Living in suburban western Sydney, Shakthi is in a community where many migrants have settled. “In its time, it’s had the most diverse population in the world,” he says. “Going for a cup of coffee in the morning, you pass every culture.”

Plenty of cups of coffee later, The Bone Sparrow is up and running at York Theatre Royal. “I’ve had a great deal of fun collaborating with Pilot to develop a grand theatricality for this work and deepen its relationship with the Rohingya community,” says Shakthi. “I hope audiences are as delighted and moved by this story as we were in the process of adapting it.”

Pilot Theatre’s premiere of The Bone Sparrow runs at York Theatre Royal until Saturday, then on tour from March 8 to April 2. York box office: 01904 623568 or at

S. Shakthidharan: Writer, storyteller, composer, director and producer for stage and screen

S. Shakthidharan in profile:

Shakthi is a western Australian writer, producer, composer and director for screen and stage of Sri Lankan heritage and Tamil ancestry. His 2019 debut play, the three-hour epic Counting And Cracking, had a profound effect on the Sri Lankan community in Sydney.

He has a new commission in development with Sydney Festival; a number of plays with Belvoir; a feature film with Felix Media and two new television projects.

He is the artistic director of Kurinji and lead artistic consultant at Co-Curious, a sister company to CuriousWorks, where he was the founder and artistic director from 2003 to 2018.