Thursday, 02 August 2012

Theatre Review: 3 August

Chariots of Fire opens in the West End with a crowd-pleasing production

Written by Sam Taylor


It isn't unheard of to leave the theatre humming the score; and who could resist Vangelis at his finest? But it is rare to leave resolving to become a better person, or at least a fitter one. Mike Bartlett's aweinspiring stage adaption of the 1981 film classic, Chariots Of Fire, does just that. His version of the epic battle between the ruthlessly ambitious Jewish outsider, Harold Abrahams, and the God-fearing Scots rugby star, Eric Liddell, would leave even those with a gruelling training regime feel rather podgy.

The in-the-round, acutely physical, staging has a very moving effect on the viewer. For some, the rotating stage may have shades of Starlight Express about it, but, for me, it really was the closest I will probably ever come to winning that blue riband of the athletics meet, the 100m.

The use of Gilbert and Sullivan as musical back up is inspired. As is the decision to make Tam Williams (Lord Andrew Lindsey) hurdle over his balanced champagne glasses live on stage. Certainly a crowd teaser. From the moment he steps into the arena set by Rick Fisher's superb lighting design, James McArdle (Harold Abrahams) is steely and mesmerising. While Savannah Stevenson as patient girlfriend (Sybil), reminds us how she really was the other half of his life. The two stayed together until his death in 1978.

It has often been argued that Abrahams had the speed while Liddell had all the style. In this fictional drawing of events, there is barely a whisker between their talents, but ultimately it is Jack Lowden (Eric Liddell) who really makes the part his own. Having put his Sabbatarian beliefs before ambition, and taking his place on the blocks for the 400m, it is impossible not to be moved when Gareth Charlton (Jackson Scholz) approaches and hands him a note. The note simply read: 'It says in the Old Book, He that honours me, I will honour.' Liddell went on to beat Scholz.

The Parisian Olympics are seen as the pinnacle of upstanding moral behaviour, although, given that the Italian fencing team was disqualified and the resulting row ended in a real duel, there is room for doubt. What cannot be in doubt is that the 1924 Games gave us one of our finest hours and when Eric Liddell died in Japanese-occupied China, the nation mourned. Director Edward Hall has provided a fi tting tribute that will live on in the memory.

Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1, until 10 November: 020-7492 1548,

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