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Chariots Of Fire

Published 23 May 2012

What better way to celebrate our Olympic year than with a stage adaptation of one of Britain’s greatest sporting films.

In bringing the Oscar-winning motion picture to the stage, director Edward Hall was faced with a daunting challenge. Just how would he translate a story that relies so much on movement and speed to such a confined space? Evidently, his first port of call was Miriam Buether’s set designing expertise.

The Hampstead theatre is utterly unrecognisable under its guise as an Olympic stadium, which comes complete with a central two-part revolving stage, tiered spectator stands and a track that runs behind the stalls. Every corner of Buether’s cleverly configured set is used to its full potential as Mike Bartlett’s action-packed adaptation of Colin Welland’s original tale unfolds dynamically from all directions.

Like the screenplay, Bartlett’s Chariots Of Fire tells the true life story of two men with Olympic-sized sporting ambitions, as they embark on physical and psychological journeys to compete at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games. Eric Liddell, the son of a missionary, is a devout Scottish Christian whose faith in God is never compromised – not even for the most important of races – while Harold Abrahams is a Jew intent on overcoming the anti-Semitic feelings he has faced throughout his life who will do anything to win the glory of gold.

The energetic cast – punishingly trained by a coach from British Military Fitness – is a multi-talented team whose skills go well beyond acting, moving seamlessly into the realm of musical theatre, aided by Scott Ambler’s muscular choreography and Vangelis’ original music. No, it’s not a musical, but the choral numbers performed by Abrahams and his fellow Cambridge University buddies confer a strong sense of solidarity in the face of competition.

James McArdle plays his role with as much passion as Abrahams showed towards his sport while Jack Lowden adds a hint of charm to his performance as the stubbornly resolute Liddell. Nicholas Woodeson’s presence as Abrahams’ greatly respected coach Sam Mussabini is uniquely portrayed through a series of understated freeze frames, which act as a distinct contrast to the hurtling action that makes up the majority of Hall’s production.

While I doubt the athletes in Team GB will be taking any lessons from Bartlett’s sportsmen – unless they’re thinking of taking up smoking on the starting blocks – I imagine, on seeing Chariots Of Fire, they would leave the Swiss Cottage venue feeling an overwhelming sense of patriotic pride, if not exhausted, and perhaps a little dizzy.

Chariots Of Fire will roll on to the Gielgud theatre for the forthcoming Olympic summer, where there will hopefully be an equal amount of success to be had.

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