Image: Lisa Hounsome
The Long Walk Back by Dougie Blaxland – Greenwich Theatre, London
Once Chris Lewis was known as an extravagantly talented all-rounder, star of the England test and one-day cricket team. Now he is remembered as a man who spent 6 and a half years in prison after a failed attempt to smuggle cocaine into Britain in his suitcase. Dougie Blaxland’s taut, probing and beautifully structured play explores Lewis’s rise and fall, one that is unique in the world of cricket and without many other sporting parallels. How could a man with such talents come to do something so utterly disastrous? Set in a prison cell, Blaxland’s two-hander probes the issues forensically, from inside Lewis’ own head.
Martin Edwards is a very convincing Chris Lewis, working his way through the realities of prison life – the fear, horror, disconnection, depression and the emotional toll of coming to terms with what he has done. Man mountain Scott Bayliss plays his cell mate, a constant figure who conducts Lewis’ internal dialogue. The pair slip expertly into numerous characters, including the trial judge, Lewis’ brother and mother, Chairman of the England selectors Ray Illingworth, drug dealers, county cricketers and more besides. Blaxland’s writing is smart and highly skilled, making a complex story involving multiple time frames seem entirely natural.
Lewis’s story is fascinating. By his own admission he got up people’s noses, roaring around in flash cars and being generally irresponsible. But he also played in a time when cricketers were beholden to the game’s old school tie authorities, treated with carelessness and frozen out if they refused to fit in. And Lewis is a black man, racially stereotyped by both players and the press as talented but lazy. His career was ended by a bizarre episode in which he reported a match-fixing approach, and was apparently fitted up by the press and driven from the game as a result. An attempted comeback at the age of 40 was a disaster, leaving him without a career or income and both desperate and foolish enough to accept a £50,000 payment as a drug mule.
Remarkably, Chris Lewis himself appears after every performance of The Long Walk Back for a question and answer session. He is thoughtful, open and self-critical, insistent on his own responsibility for what happened to him. However, although the play is supported by the Professional Cricketers’ Association, he has clearly not made friends with the cricket establishment, who must also take some blame for their treatment of their players, and their lack of concern for those who have retired. The presence in the audience of Mike Atherton, Lewis’ former test captain and one of the few to keep in touch while he was inside, is therefore to his credit. The play is a remarkable exploration of the pitfalls for those who become famous at a very young age, before their time comes to an abrupt, permanent end. It is also a rare and honest examination of mistakes, from small to very large, all made in the public gaze.