With Central London bedecked in pre-Olympics bunting, Edward Hall's audacious stage production of Chariots of Fire storms into the West End from Hampstead. Wrapped in a voluminous Union Flag, with a soundtrack of Gilbert & Sullivan and Parry, this rides the patriotic bridge between the Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics. But will it win Gold? You bet it will.
When this production first opened at Hampstead Theatre the questions were all about how this iconic film would translate onto the stage. Having succeeded in those trials, the question now was how the production would transfer from the relative modernity and intimacy of Hampstead to the proscenium arch and restrictions of The Gielgud. By throwing those very restrictions aside the theatre becomes the courtyards of Cambridge, the highlands of Scotland, a cross channel ferry and - thrillingly - the Paris Olympics of 1924.
Although no doubt complex in its execution, Miriam Buether's concept is simple. Once again, the main action takes place on a central stage of two concentric circles. Placed as it is downstage, two new tiers of seating have been built upstage. These banks - and the front rows of the stalls - are bisected by a circular running track upon which the set-piece confrontations will take place. The effect is of a magnificent stadium, probably best experienced from the stage seats ("stadium seats" as they are described by the theatre), looking across the action to the three tiers of formal auditorium seating.
"Don't compromise" says the Reverend Liddell to his son Eric. And therein is the heart and soul of this story. Two young men, in the shadow of The Great War, are driven to athletic greatness with the Paris Olympics of 1924 their goal. Harold Abrahams, son of a Lithuanian Jew, is driven by sibling rivalry, the quest for his father's attention and approval, and the anti-semitism he sees at every turn. He pursues victory at all costs, even (may he be forgiven) engaging a professional coach. Liddell, son of the manse, lives his life to the glory of his God, a God who not only made him a natural preacher and missionary but also made him fast.
So when his father exhorts him not to compromise, it is Eric's duty to take the passion and conviction he takes to his missionary work to his running. But that uncompromising approach faces its own test when he is asked to run a heat in Paris on a Sunday. This leads to confrontations with the Olympic Committee and royalty but the outcome is never in doubt. He will not compromise his beliefs and his teachings.
Abrahams' lack of compromise is more in the form of stubbornness, a trait that runs the risk of losing those he loves, just as he strives to regain the love of those he thinks he has lost. His remote father, who Abrahams endeavours to engage at every turn, is more of a presence in this adaptation than in the original film and a major force in his psyche, as is his older brother who he is forever trying to out-achieve.
There are figures who try to tempt, blackmail or bully both men out of their uncompromising positions, notably the Cambridge Masters who bemoan Abrahams' professional approach, and the British Olympic Committee who attempt to persuade Liddell to run on a Sunday. And both are surrounded by men who have a more balanced approach to the place of athletics in their lives, particularly Andrew, Lord Lindsey, who transcends both 'camps' - firstly the happy-go-lucky undergraduate who befriends Abrahams and plays peacemaker in his burgeoning relationship with Sybil, and later as the man who sacrifices his place in “the 440” in order that Eric may run in "another race, another day".
Mike Bartlett's stage adaptation gives the opportunity for the main characters to engage directly with the audience and he has created a couple of scenes and characters which explore some of the crucial issues in more detail than in the film. Otherwise the production owes much to Colin Welland's original screenplay, although it is by no means slavishly replicated.
But the stories would be for nothing if we didn't believe that these men were capable of being Olympic contenders. Although much of the athletic action is created through beautifully conceived and executed movement sequences choreographed by Scott Ambler, great excitement is created by the races that take in the full extent of the running track. While the entire company deserve credit for their fitness and commitment to these roles, Tam Williams deserves special mention as Lord Lindsey who, three times a night, is required to clear a champagne-adorned hurdle without spilling a drop.
This is truly a company show, but inevitably James McArdle and Jack Lowden have the opportunity to shine as Abrahams and Liddell. They do not disappoint. Savannah Stevenson and Natasha Broomfield are equally impressive as the very different women in their lives. Simon Williams and Nickolas Grace bring gravitas to the proceedings, especially in their turns as Masters of Caius and Trinity respectively. Simon Slater also deserves a mention for a number of amusing cameos but mainly for his musical direction, which weaves Carr, Vangelis and a number of English composers into a characterful underscore to proceedings. And when the actors return to their 2012 kit to " warm down" through their curtain call one is reminded that it has been a strong ensemble that has told these exciting tales of principle and athleticism.
Although the production is peppered with Gilbert and Sullivan and ends with the inevitable rousing strains of Jerusalem, this is a play about individuals and not nations, about the spirit of the world community's shared values rather than their destructive differences. It is this, to the strains of Vangelis's stirring theme, that had the audience on their feet, cheering to the rafters, values that will lead this production to run and run long after London's summer of games.
Name of Show: Chariots of Fire
Playwright: Colin Welland (adapted by Mike Bartlett)
Premiered: 9 May 2012 (Hampstead Theatre)
This Production Opened: 23 June 2012
Tweet: Stage adaptation of the iconic 1980s film, Chariots of Fire tells the story of two men driven to Olympic Glory by great personal motivation and rivalry.
Synopsis: "Don't compromise" says the Reverend Liddell to his son Eric. And therein is the heart and soul of this story. Two young men, in the shadow of The Great War, are driven to athletic greatness with the Paris Olympics of 1924 their goal. Harold Abrahams, son of a Lithuanian Jew, is driven by sibling rivalry, the quest for his father's attention and approval, and the anti-semitism he sees at every turn. He pursues victory at all costs, even (may he be forgiven) engaging a professional coach. Liddell, son of the manse, lives his life to the glory of his God, a God who not only made him a natural preacher and missionary but also made him fast. So when his father exhorts him not to compromise, it is Eric's duty to take the passion and conviction he takes to his missionary work to his running. But that uncompromising approach faces its own test when he is asked to run a heat in Paris on a Sunday. This leads to confrontations with the Olympic Committee and royalty but the outcome is never in doubt. He will not compromise his beliefs and his teachings.
- The numerous races, with the iconic Vangelis soundtrack.
Why See It: Not only is this a great story in Olympics year but it is a remarkable theatrical event: a traditional proscenium arch theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue converted into an Olympic stadium, young performers giving sensitive and athletic performances in equal measure. God made them actors, but he also made them fast!!
Caveat: If you like your theatre straightforward and traditional this is not for you, as the proscenium arch convention is well and truly broken. And beware – the regular use of the starting pistol caused a lot of people to cover their ears.
- The father of Simon Slater (performer and Musical Director) won Sailing ‘gold’ for Britain in the Admiral’s Cup in 1971.
- Tam Williams (Andrew, Lord Lindsey) really can run. The good people of Newcastle admired his prowess and a good deal more as he ran naked through their streets – the result of a bet on Liverpool winning the Champions’ League in 2005.
Celebrate one of this country's most thrilling and greatest ever sporting achievements this summer, as Chariots of Fire lights up the West End at the Gielgud Theatre. Adapted from the legendary Oscar-winning movie, this spectacular and ingenious retelling of Eric Liddell's and Harold Abrahams' quest to become the fastest men on earth is an electrifying and immensely moving tale of two men's rivalry, and their unwavering determination to conquer the world in the face of prejudice, immovable beliefs and overwhelming odds. Featuring the original, hugely iconic Vangelis score and a magnificent ensemble cast, Chariots of Fire brings alive the incredible true story of two British athletes whose honour, sacrifice and courage brought them glory and immortality on the greatest sporting stage of all. In an extraordinary summer, this is one event that will leave you breathless with excitement.
Gielgud Theatre35 Shaftesbury Avenue
London Greater London United Kingdom W1D 6AR
Monday to Saturday 7.45pm, Wednesday and Saturday 3pm
Jack Lowden (Eric Liddell) and James McArdle (Harold Abrahams) © Hugo Glendenning