Chariots of Fire, Gielgud Theatre.
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When first seeing the posters for Chariots of Fire lining the underground escalators, I could see it was a play about running, so initially I was unsure if it would keep-up my interest. Having missed the film version, I was yet to experience the epic race; but after seeing the play adaptation, I confirm this is certainly a sure-fire winner!
If I was sceptical when entering the theatre, by the time I had made my way to my seat, Mike Bartlett’s stage adaptation was certainly setting off on the right track. The theatre was filled with athletes stretching and warming up for the show ahead. Dressed in sportswear that gave a nod to Stella McCartney’s latest offering for London 2012, I was instantly reminded of the relevance this play still has today, with the Olympics just around the corner.
A circular stage sits in the centre of the theatre, with seating added to both sides, offering a 360-degree view of the action. For a story all about athletics, this was a great viewpoint, as it feels like you’re in a stadium waiting for the race to begin. The lights dimmed, and that’s when the main event began.
The clutter of stretches gradually became more choreographed, to the point of the whole cast almost moving as one. They stare out one side of the arena, then the other, and they’re off – jetting around the theatre on the miniature tracks that cut through the audience like Starlight Express. Gradually the runners fall out and we meet the first story of Harold Abrahams, as he arrives for his first day at Cambridge. After a brief introduction you’re whisked off to the story of Scottish runner, Eric Liddell. His story is contrasting to Harold’s, but all becomes clear when you realise they’re both working towards the same goal of the Paris Olympics. The story continues like this, doing a good job of running the two storylines parallel to each other, growing empathy for both characters. As it unfolds you realise their competition with each other, and whether down to great story or actors, you become whom to back. It makes the story very gripping, getting a good insight to both runners and cheering on each one from the sidelines.
The transitions between scenes work effortlessly, with great choreography by Scott Amblerhas, making the most of these moments to change the modest set and creating little bites of interest. The songbook of Gilbert & Sullivan is used intermittently as a soundtrack to the story, working well to keep the pace of the show, as well as bringing the 1920s feeling.
As you can maybe guess, there are one or two running scenes, and each one is as captivating as the last. Again, there is a great use of choreography to create movement and build the excitement. Even down to the finish line, where the runners are lifted and taken across in the slow motion style made famous by the film, giving you the epic feeling in a very innovative way.
The sound and lighting adds great tension and excitement to the story, and the revolving set is used to its full potential, giving 360 degrees of action. Speaking from the perspective of someone who hasn’t seen the film, I absolutely loved seeing this story being told for the first time. I think there is a great coherence between a great venue, great cast and obviously a very great team working behind this. Whether sport is your thing or not, I think this is a brilliant play, which is presented in a very engaging way. If you get the chance of tickets to see this, I would advise you hop, skip and jump at them.
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