Can you believe I have never seen the film Chariots of Fire? It’s true; it is on the ever-expanding list of “films I must see”, but for one reason or another I have just never got round to it.
Which in this instance I feel was a definite plus, as it meant I walked into Chariots of Fire at the Gielgud Theatre with no preconceptions or expectations at all. I had a vague notion that there would be lots of slow motion running, but other than that I had no idea what was to come.
What was to come was, it transpired, two and a half hours of pure pleasure. From the moment we sat down – behind, and practically on top of, the stage, how exciting! – and the smell of Deep Heat hit our nostrils, we were gripped. The cast was already on stage as the audience shuffled in, jogging on the spot, stretching and generally looking sporty. This feeling of energy and audience engagement continued throughout the performance as the athletes sprinted around and among us, university professors sermonised from boxes, and a brass band exhorted us to participate in a rousing rendition of Rule Britannia during the interval.
We were, as I mentioned, situated directly behind the stage, but as the stage revolves almost permanently this was no handicap at all. The stage-management was beautifully slick and polished; sets were changed by the actors themselves, tables and chairs whisked away in the blink of an eye by a bunch of splendidly choreographed singing students, a maypole transformed into finishing tape. The lighting contributed greatly to the atmosphere, being almost completely responsible, along with an echo effect, for a very convincing portrayal of a church, as well as taking us smoothly from rainy Scotland to sunny Cambridge and back again. The legendary soundtrack by Vangelis is moving and rousing in turns.
As for the actors, it’s rare to say this but each and every one was a delight. James McArdle is an intense, tormented Abrahams; Jack Lowden a sunny, saintly Liddell. Their struggles, both physical and spiritual, are absorbing and believable, as is their edgy relationship with each other, a tense mixture of jealousy and admiration. Nicholas Woodeson is spot on as the surly Sam Mussabini. But what use to mention the few when each of them played their part with such skill and verve? The general atmosphere emanating from the stage was one of energy and joy, and it was infectious.
Amazingly the dreaded “slow mo” was almost nowhere to be seen; the athletes genuinely pelt around the stage and when they collapse in convincingly panting, heaving heaps we feel actual sympathetic exhaustion. “It’s all about the race” says Aubrey Montague at one point, and, immersed in the sights, sounds and smells, we really feel that it is.
Leaving the theatre I noticed that nearly everybody had a big smile on their face. For this is how Chariots of Fire leaves you feeling: uplifted, energised and happy. “That’s as good as it gets!” said the jovial American to my left as we stood up to go, and I agree with him. This is a play which should run and run.
By Genni Trickett
Booking From: Friday, 22nd June 2012
Booking Until: Saturday, 10th November 2012
Matinees: Wednesday and Saturday 3pm
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.45pm
35 Shaftesbury Avenue
Content updated 17th October 2014