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A CurtainUp London Review
Chariots of Fire
Edward Hall directs in a reconfigured Hampstead Theatre with a double revolve stage and the audience circling the stage. A running track surrounds the stage with some of the audience sitting inside the track, others higher up in the circle and above with advertising banners for Lipton’s Tea and other period products. The opening scene sees modern British Olympic contenders, warming up, give way to men in 1920s athletics kit, poised on starting blocks and running around the track to Vangelis’ beautiful film score. Scott Ambler has choreographed the runners who prepare, limber up and then fly round the stadium. It is exciting and looks dangerous as they make the turns at speed. The synchronised group pieces are inspirational.
Smoke machines are carried across the stage and we hear the sound of bustle and steam railway engines. The place is Cambridge railway station where undergraduates are arriving to study just after the First World War. Two men ask to act as porters, one who has lost an arm, the other blind, a sobering contextual reminder of the wounded from the “war to end all wars”, but this play will concentrate on the sportsmen. This is where we first meet Harold Abrahams, Andrew, Lord Lindsey (Tam Williams) and Montague Aubrey (Mark Edel-Hunt) bound for Cauis College.
When Lord Lindsay asks Harold, “What do you want to be?” Harold has a one word answer, “Fast!” We see the undergraduates wearing academic dress in the dining hall, at long tables, lit by candles and Cambridge dons regretting the loss of those they taught, so many young men in 14-18 war. The athletic challenge for the matriculating students at Cambridge University is the Great Court Run. This is to run round Trinity College’s Great Court (370 metres) in the length of time it takes the clock to strike 12 (the clock strikes each hour twice) in 43 to 44½ seconds. Abraham’s success at completing the dash takes place to the rousing song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore “He is An Englishman”. The irony here is the frequency with which the dons and other university staff refer to Abrahams being Jewish. Anti-Semitism is rife in England in 1920. Harold tells us he feels “a cold reluctance in a handshake.” They seem to find his competitive spirit, the desire to win distasteful.
The scene switches to Scotland, a lone piper signalling where we are and Scots guards dancing the sword dance, to Jenny Liddell (Natasha Broomfield) and her brother Eric, famed as a rugby union player for Scotland, for his speed on the wing. The Liddells are a missionary family, Eric was born in China, and we see him telling off a boy for playing football on the Lord’s Day. Jenny disapproves of Eric’s taking part in competitive running which she sees as irreligious.
Having introduced his two main runners, Harold arranges to watch the Scotland versus France athletics contest to see Liddell compete. Later Liddell beats Abrahams in a trial and Abrahams recruits Sam Mussabini (Nicholas Woodeson), a trainer to improve his performance. This relationship will later lead to difficulties as the authorities question Abrahams’ amateur status and ban the professional trainer but we suspect this is really another form of anti-semitism. The Cambridge men entertain themselves with an outing to The Mikado and Harold meets D’Oyly Carte singer Sybil (Savannah Stevenson), an opportunity for another song “Three Little Maids.” A quick mention for the critics, “They always smile on the night. The poison comes in the morning,” says Sybil.
We are introduced to the opposition at the Olympics, the American runners, using a film projector but what we see is not film in this low tech, high energy, production but the runners themselves, Charlie Paddock (Sam Archer) and Jackson Scholz (Gareth Charlton). Andrew Lord Lindsey practises the hurdles by leaping over a gate with a champagne glass of vintage champagne at either end of the gate. If he succeeds he gets to drink the champagne, if not the butler gets the rest of the bottle. We are warned he may not succeed but again and again to our delight, Tam Williams clears the gate and the glasses remain intact! It is live spectacle.
After the interval when the audience is entertained by a jazz band, the British team in straw boaters and blazers set off by ship for Paris and the VIIIth Olympiade. A delightfully simple laurel bearing Opening Ceremony opens the games which were spread over three months rather than three weeks. The American athletes warm up with awe inspiring finesse, athleticism and the most brilliant set piece of three men hooked up together pivoting in a star shape like a Catherine wheel. Just beautiful and dauntingly impressive for the English competition.
Eric Liddell is pre-occupied however, having heard that the 100 metres heats are to take place on a Sunday. Pressure is put on him to compete from British aristocratic organisers and even the Prince of Wales (David Newman) tells Liddell where his duty lies but Liddell sticks to his beliefs and refuses. Liddell meets a Canadian girl, Florence Mackenzie (Antonia Bernath). A solution is suggested that Liddell should compete in the 400m when Andrew Lindsey agrees to give up his place to Liddell in that event, Lindsey having won a silver in the hurdles.
Harold Abrahams has stiff competition but Sammy’s advice, “Think of only two things, the gun and the tape. When you hear one, run like hell until you hit the other,” is timed perfectly. Just before the 400 metres final the American Jackson Schulz hands Liddell a note telling him that he who honours God, will himself be honoured. As Liddell runs, we do not know who has won and the radio commentary is unintelligible, crackling and breaking up. But then we hear the British National Anthem and Eric Liddell is lifted on high for the crowd to see him and the cast sing the stirring hymn Jerusalem.
Mike Bartlett has largely kept to Colin Welland’s screenplay but the staging and the proximity of the actors enables a close connection with the audience. There is a tremendous amount of character and atmosphere conveyed economically, using brilliant movement and lovely music. Performances are pitch perfect. It is no accident that Jack Lowden was one of the stars of Blackwatch. You come away feeling you have been at the 1924 Olympics and singing Vangelis’ tune. All the races are run round the stage, sometimes criss crossing in a figure of eight. These actors are not just actors, they are also athletes and what is achieved in Edward Hall’s production is not a box of tricks but the spirit of human endeavour. It is the first production I can remember a Fitness Coach and a Physio being credited. This is a wonderful play and on 22nd June it transfers immediately into a reconfigured Gielgud in the West End. This could well be better than the 2012 Olympics.
For me Chariots of Fire has a special meaning. My children and their great great uncle went to the school, then in Blackheath, now Eltham College where Eric Liddell was educated from age 6 to 18 as a boarder while his parents were in China, along with those boys whose parents were missionaries in the far flung outposts of the British Empire. Eric Liddell, married Florence Mackenzie, and himself became a missionary in China and died interned at the end of the Second World War. Harold Abrahams married mezzo-soprano Sybil Evers and forged himself a career in sport and worked as an athletics journalist. Harold Abrahams was the timekeeper for Roger Bannister’s first sub 4 minute mile in 1954.
Chariots of Fire is a gold medal winning production. I’d love to see it again . . . and again.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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