‘Chariots of Fire’ at the Gielgud Theatre

I’ve been rather churlish over the Olympics in London this year.  What with the astronomic costs to the UK  taxpayer, the time I wasted  applying for tickets in the original cack-handed allocation process, the patronising emails I’ve been receiving at regular intervals from London Transport suggesting that during the month of the Olympics and Paralympics I might want to walk instead, the generally distasteful nature of many of the commercial sponsors, and the self aggrandisement of the great and the good involved in it, I found it hard to feel overly enthusiastic.

 But if London 2012 was the reason that inspired a team to re-imagine ‘Chariots of Fire’ as a stage show, then I may change my mind about it. Based on the 1981 film, and its Oscar winning screenplay, the story is that of the success of the athletes Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams at the Paris Olympics in 1924.

It’s impossible for me to know what it would be like to watch this play without having seen the film; the enjoyment in it was not in wondering  what would happen next, or who would win the race, or whether each man would hold to his principles, but in how something so large as a 400m race could be staged in the confined space of a West theatre, in manner that we cold feel the energy and exertion of the young men taking part.  The experience was exhilarating, and had the Saturday matinée audience on its feet applauding at the end.

The physical space of the theatre has been transformed.  A track has been built out from the stage into the stalls, and new seats have been installed where the far back area of backstage must usually be.  I had a seat in that area, so sat looking out at the three tiers of front of house, right at ‘trackside’. so as the actors ran I felt the thud of their feet on the stage and the swirl of air as they sped past.  The choreography of the races and the training, the speed of the dashing bodies, the extraordinary fitness of the performers and the cleverness of the script all made for an enthralling piece.

It’s all there.  Is it arrogance or necessary confidence to believe you can win? Should you train and try hard to succeed, or is it better to let it appear all too effortless?  Should a person compromise and succumb to pressure even against deeply held beliefs?  And even though the story is now familiar there is still the element of jeopardy in the piece, because we know it is all happening there in front of us; if they trip we will see it, if they collide, or fail in their co-ordinated press ups, or if the actor playing Lord Andrew Lindsay knocks the hurdle when he jumps it then the champagne in the glass resting on it will tip all over the stage.

And there’s the Vangelis music too, which was so effective in the film, and which now arrives with all of the memories of watching the film when it was first released -at least it does for me.

What more can I say?  I really enjoyed it. There’s still a week to go before press night, so it can only get better and better.

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