I’m not a runner. I can walk all day if I have to, but the last time I ran anywhere, it took me about half an hour to get my breath back. And that was just legging it to the train. The idea of running a marathon is so alien to me that I can’t even begin to imagine the sense of achievement that comes with crossing that finish line after 26 gruelling miles.
So it was with a degree of fascination that I took myself off to see Can You Hear Me Running?, a one-woman show about running the London Marathon. Except Louise Breckon-Richards’ story is really about a lot more than that, and in fact running plays a far smaller, though no less significant, part in the play than I’d expected.
In 2008, Louise, an actress and singer preparing to audition for a West End show, lost her voice. That’s probably something that’s happened to us all at some point, but in Louise’s case, the situation was far more serious than your average cold. Can You Hear Me Running?, written by Jo Harper, directed by Steve Grihault and performed by Louise herself, documents her journey as she consults a string of doctors and tries a variety of techniques in an attempt to regain her voice and singing career. It’s a journey with many ups and downs, and at her lowest point, Louise decides to focus her energy on a new goal – training for and completing the London Marathon.
It’s a courageous, honest and very physical performance, with Louise clambering all over the boxy white set, while video screens show us footage of her out running in the open air, identify key figures in the story, and at one point give us a rather too graphic look down her throat. Her determined positivity in the face of devastating loss is inspiring, and the moments of unexpected humour lying in wait throughout Jo Harper’s script help to take the edge off what could have been a very dark tale.
Though she’s the only actor on stage, Louise’s story features a number of characters, from the specialist who operates on her vocal folds to the girl in Starbucks who’s flummoxed by her silence. Proving the point made by one of her doctors that a person’s voice is their unique signature, Louise adopts multiple different accents and tones, so that each new arrival in the story has a distinct sound all their own.
Pianist and musical supervisor Dan Glover provides recognisable snippets of hits from Louise’s upbeat running playlist – but he also has a greater role to play as a reminder of what she’s lost, and also the focus of her optimism. And just as music has an important part in the story, so too does silence. One of the most poignant scenes takes place during Louise’s recovery from surgery, when she has no choice but to communicate in writing with her bewildered young sons.
Can You Hear Me Running? is an uplifting story about one woman’s refusal to give up, no matter what. It gives us the opportunity to pause and think about how easily we take our own voices – and the ability to communicate with loved ones, friends and colleagues – for granted. And its conclusion lifts the heart and makes us believe, however briefly, that anything’s possible. I was almost persuaded to give running a go…
Can You Hear Me Running? is at the Pleasance until 23rd October.
Find out more about the show in Theatre Things’ interview with Louise.