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Chariots of Fire

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Fuelled mainly on patriotism, nostalgia and the home-field advantage of being used to really shitty weather, Team GB need all the support they can get come the Olympics. Well, things don’t get much more patriotic or nostalgic than Chariots of Fire, the classic 1981 film about two icons of British sport, Harold Abrahams, an English Jew, and Eric Liddell, a Scottish Christian, who amazed the world in the 1924 Paris Summer Games by actually winning something.

Famed for endless slow-motion footage of floppy-haired young men running along a beach to a Vangelis soundtrack, the film provides an obvious challenge for any stage adaptation: how do you depict a 400m race inside the confines of a West End venue? By building a running track through the theatre?

Well, yes, that’s exactly what they’ve done. “Stalls or stadium?” asked the usher, and I saw that banks of seating had been set up at the back of the stage (the “stadium”) looking out onto an oval running track that stretched half a dozen rows into the stalls. To complete the whole ‘theatre-in-the right-round, round-round’ effect, the central stage rotates, allowing runners to sprint on the spot without flying off into the audience. To set the mood, lycra-clad young men were strewn about the auditorium, ostensibly warming up, before breaking out into a synchronised aerobic sequence.

If that all sounds a bit too avant-garde, don’t worry - as soon as the lights go down, everything becomes as cosy as an ITV costume drama, all bowler hats, straw boaters and stiff moustaches. With a set decked out like a period sporting venue, complete with vintage posters for Rowntree’s chocolate, the feel is definitely more Stairlift Express than Starlight Express.

Like the film, the play follows Abrahams and Liddell’s respective journeys to the Olympic games. Abrahams (James McArdle) arrives in Cambridge to find his Jewish background marks him out in a world of choirs and cloisters. Driven to win, he devotes himself to training, controversially aided by a flamboyant private coach, Sam Mussabini (Nicholas Woodeson). Abrahams’ speed is rivalled only by Liddell (Jack Lowden) the ‘Flying Scotsman’, a devout Christian, who runs for the glory of god, but finds himself torn between his athletic career and his family’s desire for him to become a missionary.

Along the way, there’s singing (including generous helpings of of Gilbert and Sullivan), a little bit of dancing, and lots - and lots - of running. The cast fly across the stage in leaps and bounds, criss-crossing in figures of eight, hurdling over each other’s crouching bodies, mere inches away from delicious catastrophe. It’s an impressive spectacle, even more so with Vangelis booming in the background, and as a pleasant side effect the cast are left covered in a thin film of sweat.

The dialogue is witty but earnest, and despite the numerous musical and athletic interludes, it’s clear that writer Mike Bartlett and director Edward Halls are determined to preserve the noble tone of the original.

Whether you are competing for god, country, the love of the sport, or simply to succeed, Chariots of Fire is all about ‘running the straight race’ and sticking to your principles. This message may require a greater suspension of disbelief than the wooden track or the rotating stage, but if you’re willing to set aside your cynicism for just one evening, this energetic, exhilarating production will inspire you like no other.

****

CHARIOTS OF FIRE, Gielgud Theatre, 35 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, W1D 6AR, chariotsoffireonstage.com.


Words: Milo Wakelin
Photo: Hugo Gelndenning




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