Theatre Review – Chariots of Fire @ The Gielgud

<em>Da da da dum dum. Da da da dum. Da da da da dum. Da da da da dum. Etc. In this Olympic year, the Ocsar-winning film <a href=””>Chariots of Fire</a> has been brought to the West End stage. When we heard that the cast portraying the 1924  Olympians trained like athletes for their roles, we sent our sports correspondent <a href=””>Ed Herman</a> (who moonlights occasionally as a theatre critic) to the gala opening to see if their graft paid off.</em>

Whilst many theatrical productions claim to leave the audience breathless, it’s the cast that are genuinely out of breath in Mike Bartlett and Edward Hall’s stage adaptation of Chariots of Fire. This is not just a play but a startling display of athletic prowess as the performers, many of whom went through intensive training for their roles, hurl themselves through the audience around an auditorium cunningly remodelled into an early 20th Century athletics stadium thanks to Miriam Buether’s ingenious design.

The actors are on stage to warm up before the performance even begins (clad in ubiquitous branded Olympic training kits) and as Scott Ambler’s outstanding and innovative choreography puts them through their paces, their sinews straining even when motionless, the production hares along at exhilarating speed. Watching these <em>actorletes</em> (come on, get it trending on <a href=”!/search/%23actorletes”>Twitter</a>!) tear around the stage, I even felt guilty enough to stand up and do some stretching of my own during the interval (towards the bar for free champagne, but that’s beside the point).

<em>Photos: Manuel Harlan</em>

The premise is simple, based on the true story of two British men from diametrically opposed backgrounds pitted against each other in the ultimate test of speed, the 100 meters, before teaming up to take on the world (well, the Americans anyway) at the Olympic Games. You’ve probably seen the film but if not, go and rent it!

<a href=””>Harold Abrahams</a> (brooding, intense James McArdle) is first out of the blocks, arriving in Cambridge to take his place at the elite table of society acutely aware of the elephant in the quad that his Jewish heritage represents. Far from holding him back, it’s clear from the outset that overcoming this is what drives him to succeed – he puts a haughty porter in his place (“I haven’t been referred to as ‘laddie’ since I took the King’s commission”), and as his fellow Freshers share their ambitions to become doctors and lawyers, his is one of pure simplicity – to be “fast”. He aces the College Dash, the first person in 700 years to do so, and drives himself ruthlessly to the pinnacle of his sport.

Yet Abrahams is asked the question “Why do you run?” throughout and his answers are never convincing. Does he want to prove himself as a son? As an Englishman? His is a lonely figure, despite the obvious adoration of his friends, the public and his lover (graceful Savannah Stevenson), keeping his emotions in check throughout until they are released in the tearful finale (I had something in my eye, honest).

We move north of the border to meet Abrahams’ rival-cum-team mate <a href=””>Eric Liddell</a>. Son of a Christian missionary, Liddell runs not for the glory or even (whisper it) to win, but for the simple pleasure it brings him. Forgoing his position on the wing of the Scottish rugby team to take up running, his raw talent, energy and joy for life are tempered only by his sister Jennie (convincingly austere Natasha Broomfield), who places the Mission before all. Yet Liddell does not resent his sister – Jack Lowden’s honest, measured portrayal is of a man whose love of running is outweighed only by his love of God and family as he embraces, with some embarrassment, the mantle of the “muscular Christian” role model bestowed upon him by his father. He excels too at his sport, but it will always be a waypoint on a journey for him that will see him return to missionary work in China in the future.

The differences between the two protagonists – Christian and Jew, humble missionary and elite Cambridge scholar, proud Scot and English gentleman – have always been at the heart of this story, yet there’s something of the outcast in both. In a world in which amateurism is honoured (witness Tam Williams as Andrew, Lord Lindsey, capturing effortlessly with fag in mouth that great British value of simply turning up and getting on with it), Abrahams is frowned upon for employing that most heinous of individuals, a professional coach (Nicholas Woodeson on fine form, and definitely not a trainer); whilst the aristocracy simply cannot understand Liddell’s desire to uphold the sanctity of the Sabbath above doing one’s duty for one’s country.

Although the character of Abrahams is given more of a chance to develop than that of Liddell, I could not help but admire both Abrahams’ obsession to win at all costs and Liddell’s staunch refusal to compromise on his values. The heartfelt round of cheering and applause from all corners of the Gielgud as (SPOILER ALERT if you honestly don’t know the ending) they cross the winners’ tape in their respective races suggests that the entire audience were rooting for these two Olympians by the end.

This is a thoroughly entertaining production that brings to life the spirit of the ‘20s and in particular the 1924 Olympics – a social as well as sporting event that helped to keep the memories of the Great War at bay. At times it feels like a Music Hall-style sing-song – at one point a piano plays just off stage, whilst an on-stage band (conducted by a wonderfully over-the-top Simon Slater, clearly enjoying himself) warms up the audience handsomely during the interval. Add to the mix a healthy dollop of Gilbert and Sullivan and the ever-evocative <a href=”″>Vangelis score</a> and it becomes easier to forgive a somewhat excessive use of the revolve.

Chariots of Fire sweats charm, grit and old fashioned British spirit from every pore. In an Olympic year, that’s likely to be a winning combination.

<em><strong>Chariots of Fire</strong> – adapted for the stage by Mike Bartlett from Colin Welland’s original screenplay, is currently booking at the <strong>Gielgud Theatre</strong> in London’s West End until 10 November 2012. <a title=”” href=””></a>  </em>

Word count: 1033   Last edited by offside on July 5 at 5:05 pm


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