The Theatreguide.London Review
Hampstead Theatre 2012; Gielgud Theatre 2012-2013
Creating stage versions of popular films is a risky business. It can work with musicals (Billy Elliot, Top Hat), but is less certain with dramas (The King's Speech). The key is not to duplicate the film, but to translate it into stage terms.
Writer Mike Bartlett and director Edward Hall have done just that, finding and creating a theatrical vocabulary that makes this stage adaptation of Chariots of Fire a fresh and exciting experience.
Drawing on Colin Welland's screenplay, Bartlett tells the story of the British track team at the 1924 Olympics, just about the last time that the contestants could be gentleman athletes like the Cambridge undergraduates who went out for track with about the same dedication they gave to the student Gilbert and Sullivan Society (The Society is woven into the plot, and G&S songs cross over into the training and running scenes) and competitors could sincerely wish each other good luck before a race.
Film and play focus on two particular runners, the Scottish missionary's son Eric Liddell, running for the glory of God, and Cambridge student Harold Abrahams, running to reach immunity from the gentlemanly anti-Semitism of the time.
With not much in the way of plot (They train. They run.), Welland and Bertlett build tension out of two relatively minor points, Liddell's refusal to run on a Sunday and the outrage generated among traditionalists by Abrahams' hiring a professional coach.
What makes the story work onstage is director Edward Hall's re-imagining of it. With designer Miriam Buether he reconfigures the theatre into an arena, with a circular stage at the centre and a running track between and amongst the seats.
Training and racing are a combination of stylised mime onstage (choreography by Scott Ambler) and actual running around the track. The effect sometimes recalls Starlight Express, but more usually generates real excitement as the blend of realism and symbolism gives a real sense of how time behaves to a runner.
Given characters that are thin and just this side of allegorical symbols, James McArdle as Abrahams and Jack Lowden as Liddell admirably round them out, creating a strong and sympathetic sense of the human beings.
Always reliable stalwarts Simon Williams, Nicholas Grace and Nicholas Woodeson play some of the older characters, Savannah Stevenson and Antonia Bernath do more with the obligatory-love-interest women than you might expect, and Tam Williams and Mark Edel-Hunt provide solid support as gentlemen athletes.
And yes, the Vangelis music is there, and it is as stirring as ever.
(Things the play and film don't tell you but you can get from the programme: the 1924 Olympics also featured the legendary Flying Finn Paavo Nurmi and swimmer and future Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller, Abrahams had already competed without distinction in the 1920 Olympics, and Abrahams converted to Catholicism ten years later.)