Gate Theatre, London W11
Opened 19 November, 1999

I have recently embarked upon a major health and fitness programme but, like the middle-aged men in so many TV commercials for breakfast cereals, I am taking an incremental approach; I felt more than exercised enough last Friday, for example, after watching two men walking and running almost non-stop for an hour on the stage of the Gate in Notting Hill. The premise of Edoardo Erba's Marathon is simple: two friends, one in training for the New York marathon, the other his pace man, are on one of their nocturnal runs. Rather than go for any hup-down-hup-down running on the spot nonsense, though, director Mick Gordon and designer Dick Bird have installed a couple of running machines under the Gate's stage, so Ciaran McMenamin's Mario and J.D. Kelleher's Steve can walk and run properly as the machines' belts move beneath their feet. Consequently, these performances require a very visible kind of stamina: McMenamin spends most of the 55-minute play at a saunter, but by my calculations Kelleher (replacing the injured Ben Waters) does around three miles a night. The curtain call, too, is interesting, as the players seem to share an esprit de corps more like that of sporting teammates than of actors.

Erba uses the device of the prolonged run to work on several levels simultaneously: the pair talk about how far and how fast they should aim to go tonight, watch out for landmarks, discuss the mental and physical aspects of running, the original ancient Greek Marathon runner, and swap anecdotes from their joint and separate pasts; it is not so much that the runners' lives pass before their eyes as vice versa. Gradually, matters take on a more existential, even metaphysical hue, so that the final twist is no surprise. Colin Teevan has translated Erba's text into a muscular Irish register, and Gordon shows shrewdness in casting an Ulsterman (McMenamin) and a Corkman (Kelleher) to give voice to the lines. McMenamin is particularly impressive as the more expansive, imaginative Mario, with Kelleher's Steve a stonier man of greater concentration (and, indeed, exertion); this is essentially a classic theatrical double-act in the tradition of Beckett's Didi and Gogo or Stoppard's Ros and Guil, and Erba's text gets efficiently, entertainingly and intelligently from A to its unspecified B without outstaying its welcome.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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