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.
The show starts with the cast in contemporary jogging gear whizzing round the runways – it’s like an upper-class Starlight Express without the roller-skates – and a “dissolve” to Cambridge in the 1920s, where Harold finds himself patronised by a titled toff (Tam Williams) and the subject of low-level anti-Semitism in the banter of the college bigwigs (Nickolas Grace and Simon Williams, Tam’s father).
We don’t get the film’s slo-mo running on the beach, but we do get a few sculptured tableaux, that clicking, anticipatory Vangelis music on the soundtrack, the excitement of the Trinity court dash (Harold breasting the tape in the centre of the stage) and the sight of Tam’s toff clearing a five-bar gate decorated with flutes of vintage champagne like some frisky posh goat.
As well as the runways, there are two mini-revolves that can move the cast in opposite directions, so there’s a permanent kinetic dimension to Hall’s production, choreographed by Scott Ambler, with posters and bunting aplenty and a strong sense of theatrical immanence.
The second acts takes us to the showdown at the Paris Olympics of 1924, where Liddell refuses to run his sprint heat on the Sabbath; the compromise of running in the 400 metres leads to a share of the spoils. But not before the looming threat of professionalism in the American team, the pull of Liddell’s missionary work in China, and an uneasy feeling that this sporting idyll is the beginning of the end.
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’ 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.