Touring – reviewed at Wardrobe Theatre, Bristol
On 8 December 2008, former England cricket international Chris Lewis walked through Gatwick Airport with a man’s handbag and cricket bag filled with cans of fruit and vegetables. Inside these cans were a brownish liquid substance, which when burnt away would have left 3.75 kg of pure cocaine. For smuggling it in he was offered the grand sum of £50,000. Lewis was subsequently sentenced to 13 years in prison.
In Dougie Blaxland’s fascinating new play, The Long Walk Back, currently on a national tour, we see Lewis (Martin Edwards) contemplating his life from his prison cell alongside his cellmate/angel/devil on his shoulder (Scott Bayliss). The narrative swings back and forth through time, from his childhood growing up in St Lucia, to his great achievements in an England shirt, a ton in India, opening the bowling in a WC Final. Yet it’s the disappointments that rankle most, in the same final being bowled for a first ball duck, being described as the ‘prat without a hat’ when catching sunstroke while fielding in the West Indies.
Blaxland, a nom-de-plume for former county cricketer James Graham-Brown edits and highlights judiciously a fall from grace of a sporting hero. The work’s most moving scenes find Lewis at the end of his career struggling to work out what his next moves are. It’s a damning indictment of what we do with our sporting stars, who have committed their lives to it since childhood, and then find themselves with nowhere to go and with no qualifications to help support them.
It also tackles race within the game, in an era where to be black was still to feel like an outsider, where the press still felt it was okay to use the noun ‘gangster’ when describing Lewis’ bowling style and to look warily on his love of fast cars as a little too bling for the establishment. One only has to look at the treatment of Raheem Sterling to see things haven’t fully changed for the better.
Shane Morgan’s production for Roughhouse is very good at ensuring these points are clearly delineated, yet he hasn’t yet got both actors playing styles to congeal with each other. Edwards is gentle and thoughtful, portraying Lewis as a good man who made a series of bad mistakes but over the course of an hour gradually coming to accept his own role in his downfall and begin his rehabilitation. Bayliss is a hulking presence but in the relative intimacy of the Wardrobe Theatre, his overworked style can become distracting.
Ultimately A Long Walk Back’s success is in asking the probing, difficult questions while letting us see the person, warts and all, under the skin of our sporting heroes.