Review Round-up: Chariots of Fire takes the silverDate: 24 May 2012
Chariots of Fire, directed by Edward Hall, premiered last night at the Hampstead Theatre. The play is based on the 1981 movie and tells the story of two British athletes competing in the track competition of the 1924 Olympics.
The play runs until 16 June at the Hampstead Theatre and then continues at the Gielgud Theatre from 22 June to 10 November.
“Designer Miriam Buether has transformed Hampstead Theatre into a compact arena stadium for Edward Hall’s staging of the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire, a show that ignites the Olympic spirit and then douses it in patriotic fervour with Gilbert and Sullivan, the Eton boating song, 'Rule Britannia' and 'Jerusalem'. Mike Bartlett’s functional script is a pretty accurate re-run of Colin Welland’s screenplay, though he’s 'stranded out' a bit more the parallel stories of Eric Liddell (Jack Lowden), the Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God, and Harold Abrahams (James McArdle), the immigrant Lithuanian Jew, who employs a professional coach (Nicholas Woodeson) to win at all costs…In the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee year we are frantically reinventing our recent past as an ideal scrapbook of memories and Chariots of Fire – which goes straight into the Gielgud Theatre after Hampstead – may well feed this yearning and mood of escapism. It’s very well done and a highly enjoyable show on its own terms, with Vangelis’s original score supplemented by composer Jason Carr, a cavalcade of nostalgia-stained costumes (blazers, boaters, baggy shorts and calf-length summer dresses) by Michael Howells, and a versatile, and super-fit, company of 20 actors.”
“Edward Hall's production doesn't quite earn a gold, but it is a very creditable silver. This is the first outing as adapter for the hugely talented Bartlett, who currently has a hit at Royal Court with his baby boomer comedy Love, Love, Love. It brings out the best in his writing: his text is funny, pithy and creative, but without the over-ambition or clanging rhetoric that sometimes mars his plays. He distils Chariots into a series of short, lively scenes that eschew excessive outbursts of patriotism and focus on what drove these two men to run. McArdle's Abrahams is the star here: his outer suaveness and matinee idol jawline is a mask that is slowly corroded by his seething ambition and terrible chip on his shoulder about his poverty-stricken Jewish background. The inner conflict of Lowden's devout Christian, Liddell, feels less real: we are well aware that he will find a way around his unwillingness to race on the Sabbath. Nonetheless, he's an intensely likeable anchor to the spectacle. And a spectacle is exactly what this is: a witty marathon of sight, sound and sweat that stays on the credible side of cheesiness without letting Bartlett's interrogation of the athletic drive interfere with the fun.”
“Edward Hall’s assured staging features brawny choreography by Scott Ambler, Vangelis’s original music from the film (supplemented with a good deal of Gilbert and Sullivan) and some very effective lighting by Rick Fisher. A tribute in the programme to a coach from British Military Fitness is hardly a surprise: the challenges of the production are punishing yet handled with aplomb. We’re never in any doubt about what will happen, and some of the more breathless sequences are unsubtle. But Bartlett has responded warmly to Colin Welland’s film script, underscoring its interest in outsiders and the question of what it means to be British. This is undeniably bombastic fare. If you’re the sort of person who sheds a tear at Jerusalem, there’s a strong chance you’ll love it. If you’re not, you may still marvel at the hearty physicality on show. Although not in the end a gold-medal performance, energy and conviction make Chariots of Fire a satisfying experience.”
“The story is told in a succession of quick, staccato scenes that betray the piece's cinematic origin. But Hall's production ingeniously solves the problem of putting athletics on stage thanks to a characteristically brilliant Miriam Buether set. She turns the theatre into a series of concentric circles so that the main acting-area is a rounded disc equipped with two revolving stages. Behind the stalls runs another circular track which the actors constantly pound. Wherever you sit, you are bound to feel the whiff and wind of hurtling bodies in a state of seemingly perpetual motion. But Hall has gone further and turned the play into a kaleidoscopic pageant of 1920s British life… It's not an evening of in-depth acting but the cast is as fit as a string band's worth of fiddles. James Mcardle also conveys Abrahams's relentless pursuit of perfection, Jack Lowden is suitably uncompromising as Liddell and Tam Williams deserves a special medal for thrice leaping over a hurdle on which two glasses of champagne are perilously poised. Nicholas Woodeson as a straw-hatted coach and Antonia Bernath as Liddell's Canadian admirer make their distinctive mark. And, even if the piece sometimes plays too easily on our emotional responses, it is an ensemble triumph that will clearly enjoy the longest of runs.”
“This tale of striving for Olympic gold achieves a solid theatrical silver - it’s both well dramatised and especially niftily physicalised, but the outcome is a given. Putting athletics races onstage where the result is known inevitably reduces the dramatic tension, even as you admire the undoubted brilliance of its execution…This is unquestionably the fittest cast (in every sense) in London, but as in Beautiful Burnout, which superbly theatricalised the rigours of the boxing ring, it is also given a highly stylised framework, with choreographer Scott Ambler articulating the propulsion of their movement in slow-motion and freeze-frame stage pictures. But beyond the sheer beauty of the staging, there’s also a gripping human confrontation being played out at its centre, in which two young men from very different backgrounds – 24 year old Jewish Cambridge undergraduate Harold Abrahams (James McArdle) and the Scottish Christian Eric Liddell (Jack Lowden) – are drawn into competition with each other but also a bigger one with themselves and what truly matters to each. This provides the meat of the drama that transcends the presentation, which sometimes inevitably becomes repetitive. A large ensemble cast that includes real-life father and son actors Simon and Tam Williams, Nickolas Grace and Nicholas Woodeson all also make their mark.”
Ed Hall enjoys playing with his versatile theatre, and this is the most audacious mutation yet. A dozen young men thunder dangerously aloft, around, behind and across us, change the scenery at a hurtling pace, break into choreographed freezes, every emotion expressed in muscle. Thrilling: unexpectedly so because it seemed a crazy idea to stage the Hugh Hudson film about the 1924 Olympics…We all know the end. Yet even this grumpy Olymposceptic was brought to actual tears, moved to empathy and understanding by the fabulous theatricality of it. Blond, angel-faced Jack Lowden is outstanding as Liddell (playing saints is hard) and James McArdle a scowling intense Abrahams; Mike Bartlett’s adaptation creates unobtrusively useful extra dialogue. Nicholas Woodeson is superb as the Arab-Italian coach Mussabini, even more unwelcome than the Jew to the stuffed-shirt establishment, gleefully caricatured by Simon Williams and Nickolas Grace. They, unlike most of the cast, are excused games: Hall put his lads through rigorous military training for weeks. Maybe that sweaty reality of brilliantly choreographed athleticism, those thundering feet close up, explain the overwhelming effect..Maybe it’s partly the music – new Vangelis arrangements, and Hall adds witty snatches of Gilbert and Sullivan, rousing hymns and a cheerful scratch band in the interval. But above all, it’s the sincerity: a full-blooded willingness to take the hearty morality, amateur spirit and patriotism at its own valuation without modish irony. Irresistible.