Chariots of Fire

  • Sport and fitness
Critics' choice
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© Manuel Harlan
James McArdle (Harold Abraham)

This lavish stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning '80s Britflick is about as close to a West End musical as it's possible to get without actually being one.

You want songs? Adaptor Mike Bartlett has whimsically peppered his script with cast-sung renditions of Gilbert & Sullivan's greatest hits, to evoke the genteel post-WWI Britain in which 1924 Olympic gold-winning sprinters Harold Abrahams (James McArdle) and Eric Liddell (Jack Lowden) raced… plus that Vangelis score is present and correct.

You want dancing? Scott Ambler's neat choreography solves the 'problem' of the running sequences by turning the key track scenes into punchy, stylised martial drills.

You want a big budget? Check out the 21-strong ensemble or Miriam Buether's understatedly impressive 'stadium' set, which reconfigures Hampstead Theatre in the round, with a revolve, on two tiers. She is apparently going to do something similar for the Gielgud when the show transfers to the West End next month.

Edward Hall's production doesn't quite earn a gold, but it is a very creditable silver. This is the first outing as adapter for the hugely talented Bartlett, who currently has a hit at Royal Court with his baby boomer comedy 'Love, Love, Love'. It brings out the best in his writing: his text is funny, pithy and creative, but without the over-ambition or clanging rhetoric that sometimes mars his plays. He distils 'Chariots' into a series of short, lively scenes that eschew excessive outbursts of patriotism and focus on what drove these two men to run.

McArdle's Abrahams is the star here: his outer suaveness and matinee idol jawline is a mask that is slowly corroded by his seething ambition and terrible chip on his shoulder about his poverty-stricken Jewish background. The inner conflict of Lowden's devout Christian, Liddell, feels less real: we are well aware that he will find a way around his unwillingness to race on the Sabbath. Nonetheless, he's an intensely likeable anchor to the spectacle.

And a spectacle is exactly what this is: a witty marathon of sight, sound and sweat that stays on the credible side of cheesiness without letting Bartlett's interrogation of the athletic drive interfere with the fun.

The actual Olympics are a mild anti-climax: ultimately you can't really replicate a men's 400m race in a theatre. But the moment shortly after, in which a cast rendition of 'Jerusalem' segues shamelessly into a thunderous reprise of Vangelis's theme, gets those endorphins pumping nicely.

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Jocelyn Abbey

Exhilarating and exciting. Brilliant performances from probably the fittest cast in London - yes, they really run. Outstanding direction and staging. See it before it transfers for a truly immersive experience.

David Wingate

A fantastic evening - dramatic, athletic and melodic. A multi-talented and hugely energetic cast driven by the creative ingenuity of Ed Hall and his team. He has exploited the possibilities of the Hampstead stage to the utmost; it remains to be seen whether it will work as well in a conventional proscenium theatre.