It's not an evening of in-depth acting but the cast is as fit as a string band's worth of fiddles. James Mcardle also conveys Abrahams's relentless pursuit of perfection, Jack Lowden is suitably uncompromising as Liddell and Tam Williams deserves a special medal for thrice leaping over a hurdle on which two glasses of champagne are perilously poised.
This Olympic play fails to make it out of the starting blocks
As a self confessed Olympic sceptic the idea of Chariots of Fire onstage did not immediately strike me as being a perfect evening of entertainment. Knowing little about the film other than the often parodied score by Vangelis, I was unsure of what to expect and decided to keep my mind as open as possible. Having heard good things based on the initial Hampstead Theatre run I was intrigued to see how the show would transfer into the more conventional space of the Gielgud Theatre, and was pleasantly surprised at how well the auditorium suited the extended stage and double revolve. Sat in the ‘golden circle’ within the running track itself (where you are strictly reprimanded for eating or drinking...) I was reminded of my nine year old self at Starlight Express as the action travelled around me, drawing me into the production.
Edward Hall creates a thoroughly impressive ensemble who begin the show in a modern dress pre-set, which literally jogs back through time to the 1924 Paris Olympics. Setting the show in the round made for an artificial stadium built on the stage, which was sadly more effective in theory than it was in practise. Those sat on the stage looked simply terrified from the get go, and many moved after the interval, leaving only four audience members viewing it truly in the round, somewhat defeating the purpose. As the story begins to unfold we are introduced to our Olympic hopefuls in the ‘jolly hockey sticks’ world of Cambridge University where it seemed our national team were hand selected from. In creating this exclusive world the whole thing felt too ‘rah-rah-tip-top’ and too much emphasis was placed on the background of the main characters rather than their hopes, dreams and feelings.
Mike Bartlett’s adaptation remains filmic, cutting quickly between scenes, handled well by the heavily stylised ensemble. Movement director Scott Ambler displayed some impressive sequences that helped this narrative flow between Cambridge, Scotland and Paris, but this was perhaps too frequent, meaning no connection could be made between audience and character. The main area of conflict comes as the two characters compete to see who is faster, but this brief moment of tension is diffused as they end up running in separate races. This leaves the drama to unfold as Eric Liddell, a devout Christian cannot run in his race as the first heat takes place on a Sunday. Despite persuasion from The Prince of Wales and the full Olympic committee, he holds true to his principals, until he is thrown a rope by fellow student Lord Lindsay who gallantly lets him take his place in the 400 metres, which of course he goes on to win Gold.
It is hard to invest emotionally with any of the characters, which is more the fault of the film than the stage production. With so little drama it struggles to retain attention, and my mind wandered more than once, to the point where I even counted the stars on the American flag to make sure it was period (48). Rousing moments of nationalism came throughout the singing of Jerusalem and the National Anthem, and there were times where I almost felt connected to the piece. The setting and production were expertly delivered it is a shame that they couldn't showcase a new Olympic play that could help London relate to the games in 2012, rather than go down the well worn route of relying on a film and brand name to draw in the crowds. Whilst the production and ensemble work are entirely fresh and engaging, the plot, characters and adaptation are painfully slow and do not work in a dramatic context. As one of the characters says early on “why should we care” (about men running round in a circle), I found myself agreeing with her and sadly remain an Olympic downer.
Where I sat: E15, in 'the golden circle' where no drinking and no eating were aloud. People had to down drinks before the show and return ice creams. The stage is very high and the revolve effect was lost.
Recommended: Fans of the film may enjoy this, as well as those wanting to create an artificial bit of Olympic spirit.
Edward Hall’s assured staging features brawny choreography by Scott Ambler, Vangelis’s original music from the film (supplemented with a good deal of Gilbert and Sullivan) and some very effective lighting by Rick Fisher. A tribute in the programme to a coach from British Military Fitness is hardly a surprise: the challenges of the production are punishing yet handled with aplomb.