The Long Run at New Diorama Theatre | Review

In her new post as artistic director at the New Diorama Theatre, Bec Martin – who programmed the great creative success that is London’s Vault Festival – has big shoes to fill following the development and West End transfers of Operation Mincemeat and For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy with David Byrne at the helm (who has now moved on to the Royal Court to make way for Martin). I recall sitting in the same NDT studio in 2019 as SpitLip’s whacky WWII musical (Operation Mincemeat) unfolded and felt I was witnessing the birth of genius that just had to be scaled up for the West End if there is any justice in this world. It was.

The Long Run at Diorama Theatre. Image by Ali Wright
The Long Run at Diorama Theatre. Image by Ali Wright

I also recall that Ryan Calais Cameron’s take on Ntozake Shange’s seminal choreopoem did not receive universal acclaim when it debuted at the New Diorama in 2021 – but here we are in 2024 with tickets on sale until June at the Garrick. As such, it’s not fair to compare a 70-minute comic co-pro with Cancer Research UK with the West End renditions of earlier NDT productions. However, at its inception, Operation Mincemeat was low-budget fringe rough but it was clear that it had it all. In contrast, Katie Arnstein’s The Long Run provides glimpses of a talented and funny writer and performer at the fringe stage of her career, but it simply doesn’t (yet?) have sufficient dramatic backbone or originality to inspire excitement – even if it succeeds in jerking tears out of its audience as if Kleenex were its biggest backer.

Arnstein’s best material is in the blurb itself – she sardonically observes that ‘cancer content’ is just what the world wants amongst a cost-of-living crisis and 13 years of a Tory government. But one can’t help but wonder if she has been reined in by the (understandable) dare-not-offend mandate of her fundraising charity partner, CRUK. A few droll and affectionate observations about Arnstein’s ‘lovely’ mum are thrown to the wind. We never meet the mother as a character. We have some good giggles at the world’s fastest journey through the stages of grief until we get to a chocolate box sentimentalist climax that has lost every flicker of irony.

Arnstein (with Martin as an accomplice) appears to be asking her audience to join in a quixotic cult of NHS worship (despite Britain’s cancer survival rates lagging 15 years behind other major countries) with as much Pollyannaism as her self-parodying line of “today feels like a great day to beat cancer, eh mum?”. Whilst in the story she enacts, Arnstein comes round to discover that cancer isn’t ‘beaten’ (because it’s not a game) this production lacks much else in the way of realisation. The work never challenges what the “socially distanced” experience in cancer wards and Macmillan Coffee Mornings would mean despite the action being set during the pandemic. Like a Japanese island that hasn’t got the news the war is over, Arnstein’s work seems still to be clapping for carers – rather obediently and blindly after being excited by a Downing Street podium briefing (before the suitcases of booze come out) and then sanitised into a CRUK infomercial.

Of course, disease and death are awful and hard. And given that one out of every two people will know someone affected by cancer, the odds are very good that spending time thinking about the battle will churn up feelings. Like an ITV2 documentary with a thoughtful soundtrack, this show will make you cry and – like every delusion of how Britain wishes to see itself as the land of fair play, cricket and plucky courage – The Long Run will reflect back at its audience what it wants to see and hear.

Katie Arnstein is a face to watch. She’s pleasant, energetic and holds loads of mainstream appeal. I could see her anchoring a BBC daytime crime drama with some well-timed comic turns and plenty of charm. Perhaps if this script is let off the leash and we get to know the woman she thought she was going to lose or we pause the Health Service hagiography for a minute, we might find something dramatic and potent along the way. But for now, The Long Run is a somewhat manipulative but vaguely jolly jog around the block.

2 gold stars

Review by Mary Beer

When Katie’s mum is diagnosed with bowel cancer her life grinds to a stop. But when she meets an elderly man in a radiotherapy waiting room corridor – everything changes.

One in two of us will get cancer in our lifetimes. It can happen to anyone. People who run the marathon… They’ve only got themselves to blame.

Writer & Performer Katie Arnstein Director Bec Martin
Presented by New Diorama Theatre in association with Grace Dickson Productions

Writer & Performer – Katie Arnstein
Director – Bec Martin
Sound Designer – James Telford
Lighting Designer – Holly Ellis
Stage Manager – Andrew Hollingworth
Producer – Grace Dickson
Assistant Producer – Rory Thomas-Howes

The Long Run
Venue: New Diorama Theatre, 15-16 Triton St, London NW1 3BF

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