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Chariots of Fire - Gielgud Theatre (Review)

Review by Louise Carleton

IT WAS always going to be a challenge bringing Hugh Hudson’s 1981 cinematic masterpiece Chariots of Fire to the stage but Edward Hall does a worthy job in his latest offering, transforming the Gielgud Theatre into an Olympics track in the process.

For the most part, Hall sticks to the original script, telling the admirable and true story of two young athletes, the Jewish Harold Abrahams and his Scottish counterpart and devout Christian Eric Liddell, as they prepare to run in the 1924 Olympics in Paris.

Several times throughout the play the question of ‘why are you running?’ crops up. But as it progresses, the characters transform, suffer inner turmoils and we quickly realise they aren’t running for notoriety, to represent their country or even just running for the sake of running as they at first tell themselves and each other, but rather in order to prove something.

Liddell wants to run for the glory of God, even pulling out of the 100 metres and refusing to run after learning it was to be staged on a Sunday, the Sabbath day.

While Abrahams wants partly to overcome the anti-Semitic prejudice of being the son of a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant (something he experiences as a student studying at Cambridge).

Their extreme dedication and desire to run not only affects them emotionally as individuals but threatens their relationships with those around them – Liddell with his strict, hard line evangelical sister who doesn’t want him to run and Abrahams with his girlfriend, who he emotionally neglects.

Hugh Hudson’s 1981 film relied on large open spaces and scenes of intense training that utilised the outside world, so it was always going to be interesting to see how that is translated on-stage. But that is exactly what Miriam Buether has achieved.

The centre of her set is comprised of a main circular platform with two revolving stages. Circling this main stage is a larger ‘track’ that runs behind and through the stalls.

During the big race and training scenes the circular stage becomes a track awash with runners, moving in a highly choreographed and stylised manner so that each part of the track is constantly moving in different circles.

In doing so, it makes for some exciting movement and visually looks great, especially in the key race scenes. The only mark where they really miss it is during the Scotland vs France race, which features the cast members in a choreographed dance routine that borders on looking ridiculous. But for the most part the scenes are executed well.

Of course, this wouldn’t be Chariots of Fire without Vangelis’s original soundtrack and fans of the film will be pleased to know that it does make an appearance in the stage adaption.

The release of Chariots of Fire is perfectly timed to coincide with London’s own hosting of the games and is sure to inspire patriotic pride and excitement for what is the greatest sports spectacle on the planet.

But it’s worth seeing not just for that but also for the great cast members (especially the wonderful turns from James McArdle as Abrahams and Jack Lowden as Liddell) whose stamina is pushed physically in the demanding script yet who execute each scene with ease.

All of this is carried along with the uplifting and inspiring account of Abrahams and Liddell, whose story is ultimately one of human endeavour and persistence in the face of adversity; it’s often the races with ourselves that are the hardest.

Chariots of Fire runs at the Gielgud Theatre from June 23 to November 10, 2012. Tickets are priced £26 – £55 plus concessions are are available from the box office on 0844 4825130 or online at chariotsoffireonstage.com.

For further information, read our preview