Thursday, 5 July 2012

Chariots of Fire @ Gielgud Theatre

Even for Londoners already sick of the Games, this is one event you won’t want to miss.  Performed throughout the London Olympic season, this theatrical production of the Oscar winning film couldn’t be more timely as a celebration of England and the Olympics.

Under the direction of Edward Hall, the Gielgud Theatre is transformed into an Olympic stadium, a running track extending out into the audience who are sat in the round.  It’s an immersive, visceral experience and the sheer stamina and power of the actors running on the track is tangible. 

The play follows the plot of the film – the true to life story of athletes Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams in their pursuit to race at the 1924 Paris Olympics.  Both men triumphed in the face of adversity, not only in winning their respective races by beating the favoured competition, but in staying true to their beliefs.  Liddell is a devout Christian who, on arriving in Paris, refuses to abandon his religious beliefs and compete on a Sunday, the day of Sabbath.  Abrahams refuses to see his Jewish faith as a hindrance during his rise to fame in the Christian (and sometimes anti-Semitic) world of Cambridge University.  Although Hall has heightened the religious aspects, they are not overblown but metaphorical.  For Liddell especially, the purity of running allows him to feel “God’s pleasure” – reach Nirvana or simply relish being alive.  The narrative explores notions of achievement and the honour of immortality – universal themes that have ensured the enduring fascination in this story.

Nothing exemplifies the glorious feeling of simply being alive more than Vangelis’s euphoric film score, also utilised for the play.  Chariots of Fire wouldn’t be the same without this iconic music: it alone is enough to bring a tear to your eye and shivers down your spine.  Thankfully, its use here avoids feeling hackneyed.  The familiar piano melody accompanies Scott Ambler’s mesmerising choreography in a magnificent display of athleticism.  Replicating a hundred metre dash on stage may seem like an impossible task, but with cleverly choreographed movement making use of the central revolving stage, Chariots of Fire becomes a real spectacle that successfully captures the excitement of the race.  Waiting for the starting gun, the tension is palpable – a remarkable feat considering we all know the outcome.

The play also works as an English period drama.  This is a very British piece of theatre, not only in its celebration of English sporting success (admittedly a rarity) and its context of English University life, but in the use of Scottish dancing, a marching band after the interval (led amusingly by Simon Slater), and excerpts of Gilbert and Sullivan songs.  As such, it’s a perfect theatrical accompaniment to this year’s Games, whilst the hardships these athletes face makes an interesting contrast to modern competitors in today’s more liberal society.

Mike Bartlett’s script is full of charm and surprisingly witty, performed wonderfully by the cast.  James McArdle and Jack Lowden shine as the confident, determined Abrahams and kind-hearted, sportsmanlike Liddell but this really is an outstanding team GB effort, acted with likeable naturalism and sung with joy.  The various accents were flawless, Savannah Stevenson sang with a delicate soprano, and Nickolas Grace was hilarious in a variety of roles.

If you only see one race this summer, make sure it’s this one.


Watch: Chariots of Fire runs until November.  For more information, see the play website.

Review written for, and ticket courtesy of, Thoroughly Modern Milly.