Chariots of Fire, Gielgud Theatre | reviews, news & interviews
Chariots of Fire, Gielgud Theatre
Chariots of Fire, Gielgud Theatre
Ed Hall’s timely version of the 1981 film is too breathless to complete the course
As the Olympic Park rises out of the desolation of East London, British theatre is also being regenerated by the sports fest that looms increasingly large on the horizon. Although it has recently lost its local authority funding, Edward Hall’s Swiss Cottage venue is no slacker when it comes to ambitious work. Having commissioned upcoming talent Mike Bartlett to adapt Hugh Hudson’s 1981 film, Hall has already secured a West End transfer for the play, in advance of its opening last night.
Alluding to a line from that most English of inspiring poems — William Blake’s “Jerusalem” — Chariots of Fire tells the factual story of two athletes who competed in the 1924 Paris Olympics, the Scottish Eric Liddell and the Jewish Harold Abrahams. Both have powerful motivations for success: Liddell runs in order to prove that God is glorious while Abrahams competes to overcome racial prejudice. In both cases, neither can cease from mental — or indeed physical — fight, and their arrows of desire are firmly fixed on winning.
Bartlett’s adaptation basks in the afterglow of the film
But there are some distractions. After becoming the first person in 700 years to complete the Trinity Great Court Run, which involves running around the Cambridge University college courtyard before the clock finishes striking 12, Abrahams wins several other races. But when he loses to Liddell in their first race, he turns to a professional trainer for help. This attracts the disgust of some Cambridge dons, who see him as an unsportsmanlike Jew.
Liddell is more of a fair play man, but his belief in God has two effects: it is a spur to his competitive zeal, but it also holds him back. At the 1924 Olympics, he refuses to run in the 100-metres heat because it is being held on a Sunday, and he’s a devout Sabbatarian. In fact, for him, athletics seems to be a godly pastime until he is ready to return to China, his birthplace, as a missionary. Luckily, as far as the Olympics are concerned, he gets a chance to compete in another race.
At first, Bartlett's adaptation basks in the afterglow of the film version, with its script by Colin Welland and haunting theme by Vangelis. On Miriam Buether’s stadium set, which places a race track in the middle of a remodelled auditorium, the men’s conflict is not only a sporting one, but also a psychological and cultural affair. Bartlett’s text outlines the tensions with clarity and points up the contrasts. The English Jew versus the Scottish Christian, both outsiders, yet both determined to define themselves through their sport.
At its best, the play gives you an idea of how it feels to compete, to lose, to win. It’s all about the agony and, if not exactly the ecstasy, at least the glory (cue Vangelis here — it never fails). At other times the symmetry of Liddell and his sister Jennie (who prefers charity work to sport) and of Abrahams and his lover Sybil (who sings Gilbert and Sullivan) seems a bit clunky. Still, Hall’s production is energetic, with muscular if rather crude choreography by Scott Ambler, and the huge cast of fit young men constantly running around the auditorium, when added to the unfocused storytelling, contributes to a general feeling of messiness. Yes, the story needs running, but surely not all the time? Athletic exuberance (pictured above right) can get very tiring.
And yet there are a few very good moments. Some of the best scenes are those between Abrahams and his coach, Sam Mussabini, another outsider. Together, this professional partnership challenges the upper-class amateurism of the English public school and university system. And there is plenty of good material about individual motivation: Liddell runs because he knows that “God is not sad; He wants us to enjoy life”. Abrahams competes because sport is a weapon against anti-Semitism.
This is an evening that prefers bombast to glory
Broad in its humour, clear in its purpose and somehow decent in its representation of Britishness, Chariots of Fire is an Olympic Games play that knows which side it’s backing. And, in case anyone might be confused, there’s lots of stirring Gilbert and Sullivan, the National Anthem and, yes (you knew it didn’t you?), "Jerusalem". But national pride is a poor substitute for moving characterisation. Despite good performances from James McArdle and Jack Lowden as Abrahams and Liddell, with Nicholas Woodeson excellent as Sam, and Savannah Stevenson as Sybil and Natasha Broomfield as Jennie, this is an evening that prefers bombast to glory, and fills the theatre with a general air of unearned celebration. At its best, there is a sense of danger in the athletics, but too often the production is unsubtle in its effects, predictable in its course: a bore basically. I wish I could say that this one deserves to run and run, but I really don’t think it does.
- Chariots of Fire is at the Gielgud Theatre
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