Chariots of Fire

Adapted for the Stage by Mike Bartlett from the screenplay by Colin Welland
Hampstead Theatre

James McArdle and Tam Williams Credit: Manuel Harlan
Jack Lowden and Company Credit: Manuel Harlan
Tam Williams Credit: Manuel Harlan

Chariots of Fire is the perfect play for this Olympic summer and there is little doubt that it will prove a runaway success both in Hampstead and, after its transfer to the Gielgud, in the West End.

Director Edward Hall has put together a wonderful creative team that captures the spirit of the iconic British movie from three decades ago but gives the subject matter a new lease of life on stage.

In fact, the term stage is almost a misnomer since designer Miriam Buether has created a "stadium" featuring a small circular playing area with a double revolve at its centre. She enhances this by allowing the actor-athletes to run around and through the audience in the thrill of the chase.

Scriptwriter Mike Bartlett, currently riding high following the massive success of Love, Love, Love, which is still playing at the Royal Court, has done a fine job of converting Colin Welland's film script into a manageable 2¾ hours of stage entertainment, balancing social and political issues with the build up to an inevitably heart-warming finale.

Most visitors will know the basics of the story. In the lead up to the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, a Cambridge undergraduate Harold Abrahams, played by James McArdle, did the impossible. He completed The College Dash at Caius, never previously achieved in 700 years of attempts, thereby announcing himself as an Olympic hopeful.

However, rather than gaining universal praise, proud Abrahams suffered opprobrium because he was the son of a self-made Lithuanian Jew. This was never likely to go down well with the hypocritical college powers, allowing Simon Williams and Nickolas Grace to form as memorable a double act as John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson in the movie.

At the same time, Jack Lowden's Eric Liddell, the devout Scottish son of a family of missionaries, was proving himself to be just as speedy north of the border, much to the dismay of his puritanical sister Jenny, Natasha Broomfield.

The stiff upper lip Englishness is challenged not only by the uppity Jew and preaching Scot but also the horror of professionalism in the compact form of Northern Sam Mussabini, a highly effective but much-maligned trainer played with great wit by Nicholas Woodeson.

Everything seemed set for a thrilling showdown in Paris, with the possibility that a couple of lightning fast Americans might spoil the British party.

This is the stuff that sporting drama is made of and inevitably builds to an unforgettable and highly exciting climax. Along the way though, other factors intervene. The tensest moments come after Liddell refuses even the Prince of Wales when asked to run a heat on a Sunday. For both men, love beckons as well but this is merely a sideline to real life.

Although the characterisations may not be all that deep, the stage version of Chariots of Fire should make us all think about more than just issues of friendship and religion.

Back in the day, the Olympic Games represented the peak of human spirit and the professionalism that has blighted sport today was unimaginable. Rivals would selflessly support each other and, in evening's most moving moment, the impeccably upper-class Andrew, Lord Lindsay played by Tam Williams, willingly sacrifices his own ambitions to help a friend.

This very slick stage presentation is graced by every possible variation on runners doing their bit on stage, which owes much to choreographer Scott Ambler as well as the remainder of the creative team.

When you think that there is no other way to show a man sprinting or breasting yet another finishing line, they come up with one more, ensuring that audience members will leave the theatre on an upbeat note humming William Blake's "Jerusalem" and enthusing about the upcoming Games.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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