The result of the story, based on real events, isn’t going to be a surprise to anyone familiar with athletic history or to those who have seen the film but, such is the detail and performance, the audience was on its feet by the ending and as the runners raced about the track, there was notable tension to see who would win.
Miriam Buether’s set had as its centre a revolve-within-a-revolve allowing the cast to do plenty of moving around whilst remaining centre stage. Despite this facility, a lot of the running is done around a purpose-built track that circles the audience, similar to Starlight Express. It allowed for action to take place on the track, maintaining the feeling of us watching a genuine athletics event and not one that we had to imagine happen somewhere off stage. This is a good point to mention just how impressive the performance was in terms of its physicality as well as the acting. The fitness of the cast is outstanding with even some dialogue being given during a brisk set of step ups. The arrival of the American team plays to the national stereotype of strength and showmanship when three of the actors perform a three-way press-up routine with their feet up on each other’s backs. Then, after what must be a very physically demanding two and a half hours, the actors perform their curtain call after running several laps of the track! It’s clear that not only are these people fit enough to run, they are also enjoying it immensely and this enthusiasm infected the audience.
The central pair of James McArdle as Harold Abrahams and Jack Lowden as Eric Liddell are excellent. Lowden oozes cool charm whilst maintaining the pious character, able to command a sense of leadership and inner strength over Liddell’s adoring fans as well as the Olympic committee. McArdle has a more outward relationship to the audience and expresses an almost puppy-like enthusiasm towards his sport. He captures the public-school-boy arrogance without losing the sympathy of the audience. He is well supported by solid performances from Mark Edel-Hunt as Aubrey and Tam Williams as the wonderfully upper-class Lord Lindsey. Williams must be praised not only for his dashing wit and comic timing, but also of his hurdling ability, taking on a daring challenge that will have the audience on the edge of their seats every night with genuine fear that he may not complete the task.
What I love about Hall’s direction is the pace. For a story about running, it’s obviously important to keep things moving quickly, but Hall has created a beautifully choreographed production that skips along with gusto. Some scene start a few seconds before the previous one ends whilst others are filmically cut short to snap to the action once the setting has been established. Characters pop in and out of soliloquies, often in the form of narrating letters to family, and often with perfect comic timing. The supporting cast are excellent and work very well together, which in such a small space, with so much action and at so fast a speed is a testament to some dedicated rehearsals.
Although not a musical, there is a lot of music woven in to create the atmosphere. Aside from Vangelis’s renowned theme music, the live harmonies from the cast hit all of the right notes and under Simon Slater’s assured musical direction, the cast are even able to show off their musical abilities with a few cheeky songs during the interval. Although some of the cast are adept at various woodwind and percussion instruments, Joe Bannister does a spot of scene-stealing as the seemingly incapable Colin as he comically struggles with cymbals and triangle. Savannah Stevenson’s operatic voice is striking and perfectly cast for Sybil, as is her portrayal of the Canadian love interest.
The producers are canny to make a show that will appeal to tourists and athletic fans in this Olympic year. It epitomises the British fighting spirit and enthusiasm for competition as well as a light-hearted flavour of the public school experience. The moment it might become pretentious, someone is quick to ground it with a self-aware jibe or to bring the focus back towards that all-important slow motion photo finish. With a heart-warming story and such enthusiasm from this talented company, this show deserves to run for a very long time.