The cast of Run Rebel. Pictures: Pamela Raith

Run Rebel

Coventry Belgrade


The most important person in this staging of Run Rebel has to be its multi award-winning author, Manjeet Mann, who shares a name with an eminent Indian film producer.

Essentially a children’s writer, and playwright (notably of one-woman shows), she has worked as an actress in film and TV, a producer and screenwriter. All this. She has emerged as a very significant figure on today’s literary scene.

The Crossing, a moving story exploring today’s heartbreaking refugee crisis, and centred on two teenagers from different worlds being brought together, won the Costa Children’s Book Award as recently as 2021 and emerged as The Sunday Times’ Children’s Book of the Week.

For our magazine’s audience, it’s noticeable that she spent a year in the West Midlands, as an associate artist with the Birmingham Rep. Still close to home, this play has also been shortlisted for the Warwickshire book awards (I didn’t know such a thing existed. How admirable and inventive).

Relevant to, and a source or at least an explanation for the girl who wants to escape home pressures by embracing the freedom of running, Mann founded an organisation called ‘Run The World’ ( which is a not for profit set up that uses sport and theatre as a means to empower women and girls.

The original was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal 2021 and picked up another Carnegie Award, as well as achieving a United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA) gong, a ‘Diverse Book’ Award, and Sheffield Children's Book Award (not for the first time for this highly creative author). Plus – amazing - a Guardian Best Book of 2020 accolade. Her debut Picture Book Small’s Big Dream was published in April 2022.

Wow. What a run of success. I can’t say this stage version – a world premiere adaptation – of her (yes) verse novel Run Rebel (Mann enlivens it with a range of different forms and metres) seemed entirely up to that sort of level, but it had a lot of spirit, some nice humour, and a clear, well-expressed feeling of poignancy at the main character, Amber’s frustration with home life and her need to strike out in, for that kind of household, an original way. In a modest context, rebellion. 

Her parents, illiterate Punjabis (isn’t even that a bit non-PC? But of course it’s right) -  a ‘traditional’ father (Pushpinder Chani), inclined to explode and say no, a mother (Asha Kingsley) rather more sympathetic, and a sensitive sister - were all played perfectly adequately, maybe rather well. I especially liked her feisty, very much alive little teenage friend at the start (Hannah Millward), who later figures as her running coach complete with whistle. I think a super actor. Briefly she out-acted Amber (the gloriously hard-working Jessica Kaur), but not for long.  

trio middle

Asha Kingsley as Surinder, left, Jessica Kaur as Amber and Simran Kular as Ruby

This was a Pilot Theatre production; they’re regular welcome visitors to Coventry.  Maybe I missed my copy of the programme and/or cast list, but if not, when will this post-Covid nonsense stop? (after all, programmes are subsidised by the audience). The Belgrade’s promotional summary runs “Pilot Theatre brings another spellbinding adaptation of the very best of recent young adult fiction to the Belgrade Theatre. Combining physical theatre and mesmerising visuals, and performed by a multi-talented ensemble this promises to be another landmark co-production made especially for audiences of 11+.”

Well done, the Belgrade: it is securing a good turnout of that young age group, who may or may not have been gripped. Mesmerising? I’m afraid not. The visuals were best when pasting names and slogans across an enclosing back wall, but a good deal of the rest was pretty humdrum; and absolutely none of it besotted or mesmerised. Needless to say, the technical team delivering it all was first rate.

More blurb: ‘unique’. “Run, Rebel sits in a genre of its own. Manjeet has created something unique in that the text moves seamlessly from spoken word, to flash back, internal thoughts, to direct address.” Well, Shakespeare had his own form of flashback, and of course all the rest. “I wanted to capture all that (integral) sensory feeling within the design and create a vessel that could hold all of it. The design is abstract for this reason, and it felt that we could be more inventive with our storytelling by being non literal in our approach.” 

I don’t know. The whole thing was, as I’ve said, in good spirit; full of verve (Kiran Raywilliams has a good go at making something of ‘David’, although both he and the equally committed, multi-part Simran Kular could have used a bit more imagination from Director Tessa Walker); nicely delivered; attractive (apart from mostly dull costuming); and above all, deeply empathetic to the main character’s dilemma. I nearly said her dreams, but it never touched on anything as elusive or finessed or tangential as that. In fact it was all rather ordinary.

Pilot has admirably run the test of time. Founded in 1981 (at a Yorkshire Teacher training college of some standing) and now based in York, it has toured since 1998 (originally with The Lord of the Flies, coincidentally the play coming to the Belgrade, a coproduction with the Leeds – former West Yorkshire - Playhouse on 25-29 April).

Of course the essence of this story is so important, being based on what is the true prohibitive experience for girls and women in a wide number of Asian, probably African, countries: Afghanistan, heaven forfend. But for all the running – it could of course make a stimulating film – this is far from a subject being approached for the first time. We know it, because nowadays, it’s so widely proclaimed.

The aim. However, is to pass the unhappy facts on to children. Run, Rebel perhaps it achieves its aim: to make people young or old new to this – should one say, this horror, this awfulness? - sit up and maybe not just think about the wrongness, but do something about it. Every campaigner on these issues contributes something. Battling family and society, the splendid Amber is indeed a Rebel. To 25-03-23.   

Roderic Dunnett


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