Review: Scenes for Survival - Running Out, National Theatre of Scotland

Over the past few months, it’s safe to say that many facets of life have been made far more difficult for the best of us. However, one thing about lockdown that I hadn’t yet considered until watching Àine King’s short, Running Out, directed by Sarah McCardie, was how one thing has been made far easier: lying.

With only a select few (if any) people having been able to witness our truth in person, and with many of us turning to the theatricalities of social media to give and receive human contact, who’s to know that you’re not really fine, fit or fulfilled when you say you are? 

Underneath her protagonist, Fran’s, elaborate lies about where and how much she’s been training towards running a marathon with her currently hospitalised mother, King cleverly implies that maybe many of us have been recently living a double life without even realising it.

This idea is playfully indulged in the most compellingly theatrical part of the piece, where Fran (Victoria Balnaves) jogs around her kitchen whipping up a recipe for an elaborate lie to feed to her sick mother on the other end of the phone; rice in a pan substitutes wave sounds, whilst an electric toothbrush stands in for the buzzing bees. As the scene shifts from lovingly silky montages of the open highlands to Fran’s empty yet hilarious fumbling facade, I feel King’s genuine nostalgia and longing for these glorious landscapes and all the outdoor places in all their freshness and life that many of us might not see again for a long while yet.

Balnaves’s performance is impressively dynamic, sliding naturally from physical comedy to Fran’s thoughtful and distressed reminiscing of times training with her mother. But, no lockdown theatre would be complete without a video call, so, enter John Sougall as Nick, Fran’s trainer. Sougall’s character, whilst energetically played, is far less believable. His lack of empathy for Fran’s situation (one of grief and stress and which many people are currently living through) feels at times like a slightly poorly placed attempt at a farce on the ‘fitness freak’; a more arrogant tool for making light of the situation. On this, Fran, clearly unsure as to whether she needs motivation or emotional support, gladly hangs up.

Another issue tackled is the current common anxiety around our changing bodies in lockdown. With Fran being too frightened to go outside on account of the idea that “the size of my thighs would scare people”, King empathetically touches on the risks of body dysmorphia and insecurities born from a tasty concoction of persistent narratives surrounding getting/staying fit over lockdown, and the increased time we’ve spent critically focussing in on ourselves at home. Although not necessarily the responsibility of the film, it would have been more cathartic or even helpful to see these narratives more critically tackled in the script, even subtly, rather than almost reinforced when Fran decides to ‘run out’ at the end.

It’s McCardie’s focus on heavy audible breath that stays with me the most, though. Whilst, of course, morbidly gesturing towards the pandemic itself, the notion of breathlessness flows rhythmically through the piece as a question of how we manage to keep up with ourselves during a global crisis. As we muddle through this ever-changing and ever-challenging way of life, are we, like Fran, struggling to keep pace multiple versions of ourselves? What would happen if we stopped, let those facades run ahead, and just breathed in simplicity for a moment? 

Running Out ​is now streaming on the National Theatre of Scotland Website.