Chariots of Fire, Gielgud Theatre

Published: Wednesday, August 1, 2012 11:50 | Review by: Gillian Fisher |
Tam Williams in a leap of faith Tam Williams in a leap of faith

In the aftermath of the Great War, Britain was seeking a new beginning and hopes for returning this once great nation to its former glory were pinned squarely on the generation of young men too junior to make the draft. Nothing inspires national pride and unity quite like the Olympic Games, except of course, winning. In 1924 Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell have their sights set firmly on the blue ribbon for the 100 metres, and it seems nothing will stand in their way. But what sacrifices must these men make to achieve this goal? Can Abraham's tenacity overcome the prejudice he faces as the son of a Lithuanian Jew? Can Liddell's speed justify shunning the missionary work his family is so dedicated to? In the face of such rigid obstacles and gruelling adversity, why do these men run?

Adapting Colin Welland's iconic 1981 film was always going to be a challenge, but Mike Bartlett has exceeded all expectations by constructing a pithy, emotive and thoroughly consuming piece of theatre. Whilst the dialogue and scene order adhere closely to the original film script, Bartlett's addition of a few domestic scenes around dinner tables and in front parlours greatly enhance insight into the main characters' background. Furthermore, a greater focus upon the humanity of the characters is not only moving but also provides some jocular comedy. Miriam Buether has created a stunning set that extends into the stalls allowing the actors to quite literally run rings around the audience. Masterfully capturing the sense spectatorship, the set also includes two concentric revolving platforms which are used to spectacular effect both to augment motion and to intensify the more introspective scenes.

Not only do the cast perform their roles with dedication and skill, they also exhibit a range of other talents; having to perform athletic feats throughout as well as show some impressive vocals and even play instruments. Abrahams is played by James McArdle, with excessive cockiness and a vehement desire to prove himself this tempestuous character seems constantly on the brink of impassioned eruption. Liddell is contrastingly humble and pensive. Played purposefully by Jack Lowden, his portrayal of Liddell's famous arms flailing, tongue lolling style or running is fantastic. Abraham's sports coach Sam Mussabini is a stern but kind played by Nicholas Woodeson. Mark Edel-Hunt plays a somewhat bewildered but good hearted Aubrey and Tam Williams is wonderful as the foppishly dismissive Lord Lindsey.

Head to head Head to head

Difficult to define as a genre, this production seems part musical, part drama and part sporting gala. Employing a vast number of spectacular theatrical devices such as spotlighting, synchronised routines and slow motion crossings of the finish line the effect is hugely cinematic. Painfully close to a full five stars a couple of slightly clumsy scene links make this a 4.9 if such a thing exists in theatre reviewing. Echoing Abraham's description of Cambridge, this play presents 'a vision of Britain.' With selections from Gilbert and Sullivan, highland flings, quavering toned school masters sipping sherry, straw boaters and jokes about the loose morals of Frenchmen this encapsulates so much that is emblematic of British culture. As that stirring score by Vangelis rang through the theatre it aroused an unexpected feel of patriotism, and I was gripped by anticipation. Truly a masterpiece set in England's green and pleasant lands.

Chariot's of Fire is at the Gielgud Theatre until November 10, 2012

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