Everyone queuing outside the Iffley Road running track last night had a number pinned to their chest: 40, 41 or 42. I was baffled. Fortunately, I had the grouch in tow and being something of an athletics “know it all” he informed me that 41 was the number Roger Bannister had worn on that historic day in 1954. It turned out he was right. Never mistaken for a winner, I was handed 42.
When we entered the grounds the same numbers were attached to posts and we were asked to gather at the appropriate one. (So, the first thing worth knowing is that if you go with friends, make sure you all get the same number or you’ll be split up.) Each group is led around the track by one of the cast of four. What isn’t made clear is that it doesn’t matter who you get as you’ll be doing another two laps and the leader will change each time. Had I known that at the beginning, I would have spent less time trying to see what was going on in other groups for fear I was missing something. The fourth member – who plays Sir Roger himself – doesn’t take a group, but intermittently joins each one along the way.
Our first guide was “Jack”, a 1950s sports reporter played by Jack Trow. He was excellent, very funny and perfect for the role. He was the facts and figures man; as we walked, he told us what was happening in 1954 in other parts of Oxford (any beyond) during the build-up to the race. Jack was keen on punctuality and kept us tightly on schedule, which, we realised, was crucial as all three groups had to be in synch.
Our second guide was “Mara”, a character based on modern day athlete Mara Yanauchi and played by Janet Etuk. Mara’s role was to point out the contrast between then and now. Roger Bannister worked as a junior doctor at the time and his training schedule was nothing like the intensive programme Mara undergoes.
Finally we walked with “Michael”, played by Director and co-writer Jake Oldershaw. Michael was a local who should been there on the night of the race, but decided to go courting instead… a decision he regretted when he found out what he’d missed. Michael asked us to write any great moments or great regrets on post it notes to share with others; at such short notice I couldn’t think of any.
After the three laps (3/4 of a mile) we were asked to take a seat in the stand. A choir appeared, the atmosphere built up and “Roger” (played by Timothy Allsop) appeared from nowhere and ran the final lap, crossing the winning line and collapsing into the arms of his supporters; it was brilliantly done.
Afterwards we were offered the opportunity to see how fast we could do a lap. Most (sensibly) declined, but like a school sports day, the competitive dads took to the track and gave it their all, along with a few brave women and excitable children; it was a great ending to a really enjoyable, and very different, piece of theatre.