Chariots of Fire at the Gielgud Theatre

Posted by Gareth Hargreaves

Stage-based adaptation of the Oscar-winning Olympic drama is a winner all the way says Laurence Green

Chariots of fireNo show could be better times than Chariots of Fire (Gielgud Theatre), the stage version of the Oscar-winning movie, as it arrives ahead of the most important event on the British calendar this year - the Olympic Games.

The story follows the chequered progress of two British athletes towards participation in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris. The fiery ambitious sprinter Harold Abrahams, son of a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant, is driven partly by a desire to overcome anti-Semitic prejudice that he encounters, not least among the dons at Cambridge. His rival, Eric Liddell, the son of a China-based Scottish missionary, is powered by his devout Christian faith and refuses to bow to pressure from the governing authorities to put his patriotic duty before his faith and this causes a heated argument when he withdraws from a 100mts Olympic heat because it is to be run on a Sunday.

Different in some respects, the two athletes, who are fired up to become the fastest men on earth, are markedly similar in other ways: both show an unwavering dedication and both are prepared to sacrifice their emotional relationships with either girlfriend or sister to achieve success o the track.

Mike Bartlett has adapted the 1981 film with respect - but not slavish dependence on - Colin Welland's screenplay and indeed has brought a youthful modern tune to the piece so this tale of courage discretion, loyalty and standing up for one’s beliefs, and achieving something for the sake of it with passion and not for fame or financial gain, seems more relevant today than ever.

Furthermore Miriam Buether's ingenious ‘stadium within a theatre’  with a circular track on which the actors constantly pound, cuts right across the auditorium and gives the piece a ring of authenticity, while the more intimate and genuinely moving scenes are performed in the main acting area on the revolving stage. 

The play also captures the mood of the early 20th century and provides a kaleidoscopic pageant of the times - Abrahams was dating a D'Oyly Carte mezzo soprano, so Gilbert and Sullivan's music is used as a constant motif and punctuates the action.

Director Edward Hall draws impressive performances from James McArdle as Abrahams, a man in relentless pursuit of perfection, Jack Lowden as the resolute, uncompromising Liddell, and Nicholas Woodeson as the plain -talking coach. Special mention should also be given to Tam Williamson, who alone deserves a medal for leaping over a hurdle on which two glasses of champagne are precariously balanced.

I should also add that Vangelis's pulsating atmospheric score never fails to stir the soul and gives this involving and inspiring play just the uplift it needs.

This is a definite winner all the way!


Chariots of Fire 
The Gielgud Theatre, London 
Runs until November 10 2012

Box office: 0844 482 5130

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