The Olympic flame is already on its way to London and the cultural countdown has also begun with the London 2012 Festival underway at venues across the capital and the rest of the country. Now Hampstead Theatre stages its own pre-Olympic trials for a new stage version of the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, a true story of British athletic glory at the 1924 Paris Olympics, before transferring it to the West End’s Gielgud Theatre in June, where it hopes to capitalise on our own Olympics fever.
A scene from Chariots of Fire at Hampstead Theatre, London (previous picture shows Nicholas Woodeson as Sam Mussabini) and James McArdle as Harold Abrahams) Photo: Tristram Kenton
This tale of striving for Olympic gold achieves a solid theatrical silver - it’s both well dramatised and especially niftily physicalised, but the outcome is a given. Putting athletics races onstage where the result is known inevitably reduces the dramatic tension, even as you admire the undoubted brilliance of its execution. You also can’t help thinking of Starlight Express, with a race track travelling right the way around Hampstead Theatre which has been reconfigured in the round for it, with the upper gallery also extended to the opposite side as well, to make a mini Olympics stadium (Miriam Buether is the designer of this most immersive of theatrical environments).
But instead of humans pretending to be trains racing along those tracks on rollerskates, here it is real athletic prowess that is on display as the expertly drilled company, who have undergone a kind of boot camp to prepare themselves for it, heroically propel themselves unaided but at great speed around the track, barely breaking into a sweat as they do so, against the surging triumphalist sound of Vangelis’s famous soundtrack to the movie.
This is unquestionably the fittest cast (in every sense) in London, but as in Beautiful Burnout, which superbly theatricalised the rigours of the boxing ring, it is also given a highly stylised framework, with choreographer Scott Ambler articulating the propulsion of their movement in slow-motion and freeze-frame stage pictures.
But beyond the sheer beauty of the staging, there’s also a gripping human confrontation being played out at its centre, in which two young men from very different backgrounds - 24 year old Jewish Cambridge undergraduate Harold Abrahams (James McArdle) and the Scottish Christian Eric Liddell (Jack Lowden) - are drawn into competition with each other but also a bigger one with themselves and what truly matters to each.
This provides the meat of the drama that transcends the presentation, which sometimes inevitably becomes repetitive. A large ensemble cast that includes real-life father and son actors Simon and Tam Williams, Nickolas Grace and Nicholas Woodeson all also make their mark.
This stage adaptation of an Oscar-winning film from 30 years ago succeeds on its own terms to provide what is sure to be a huge popular theatrical success.