Last week, our reader Declan went to see Chariots of Fire, at the Gielgud Theatre. Read his review to find out what he thought!
Opening in May at the Hampstead Theatre before transferring to the Gielgud in June, Mike Bartlett’s adaptation of the 1981 film is proving a commercial success. The play follows the careers of Eric Liddell (Jack Lowden) and Harold Abrahams (James McArdle). The first is the son of a missionary who claims to run “for the glory of God”, the other a fiercely competitive Cambridge student who runs to prove himself against the prejudice he experiences as a Jew. In the lead up to the 1924 Paris Olympics, each is challenged by those closest to him, forcing him to question his true motives and to make sacrifices for what he believes in: love, God, King, country, or running.
‘sheer energy of the versatile characters’
Given the immanence of the London Olympics, the production couldn’t be more timely. However, perhaps as a result of being put together in time for the games, the piece feels like it has been rushed into production, and the mix of directorial techniques employed by Edward Hall can be distracting, preventing full engagement with the story or characters. Despite such flaws, the sheer energy maintained by the impressively versatile cast manages to pull the play through, creating, finally, an entertaining evening out.
‘physical comedy often had the audience in stitches’
The greatest strength of the play was its ensemble cast. Changing in and out of 1920s Cambridge University dress, running gear, and Scotch-tweeds whilst jogging props and scenery on and off stage at lightning speed, cast members were used effectively to evoke changing locations and atmospheres on an otherwise bare stage. They were evidently having a great time, belting out Gilbert and Sullivan numbers (Abrahams met his wife Sybil –Savannah Stevenson – at the Cambridge Gilbert and Sullivan society) with gusto. Their joy was infectious, and moments of physical comedy often had the audience in stitches. The leads were less impressive. McArdle spoke in strained but emotionless half-shouts, failing to evoke much sympathy for the bullish Abrahams, whilst Lowden’s relaxed manner meant that we never really got the impression of Liddell as a man torn within himself.
‘imaginative staging’ but a dated score ‘camp rather than moving’
The staging was imaginative, with a figure of eight track running behind members of the audience on both sides of a round centrepiece. This centrepiece had two revolving components, allowing constant movement, and acting as a treadmill so that actors could achieve some pace. Lighting was also used well, combining with minimal, moveable scenery to evoke chapels, college quads, and period film in simple but effective ways. The iconic Vangelis score, however, sounded a little dated with its 1980s-synth timbres. In the context of the frequent Gilbert and Sullivan tunes and the cast’s constant clowning, it came across as camp rather than moving.
‘anyone with Olympic fever will have an excellent time’
Chariots of Fire works as a fun West End show. Its pace, its intense physicality, and its very English spirit of derring-do carry it through despite the hit-and-miss nature of Hall’s impressively bold direction. Anyone with Olympic fever, stirred by patriotic fervour, or very keen on running, will have an excellent time. Others may be impressed by the set pieces but are likely to feel that it ultimately fails to get off the starting line.
Thank you, Declan, for sharing your thoughts!
Tell us what you think of Chariots of Fire, at the Gielgud Theatre.