CHARIOTS OF FIRE, the play-of-the-film, won rave reviews when it opened at Hampstead Theatre. Now it’s running at a totally reconfigured Gielgud Theatre in the West End. A revolving stage is encircled by a running track that runs right through the stalls. And a few – not very privileged – audience members are seated behind the stage where the backdrop used to be.
The film, which won umpteen Oscars, is now over thirty years old, I discovered to my dismay. It was the idea of its director Hugh Hudson to produce the play of the film in Olympic year, and a great idea it is too. But how do you reproduce a story about Olympic runners on stage?
The answer, as directed by Edward Hall, is very imaginatively. Around twenty young men, and some women, spend a good deal of the play running full pelt around an awkward running track, occasionally switching direction sharply and at full speed and weaving in and out of each other with fantastic deftness. At one point Tam Williams, playing Lord Lynley, jumps – not once but several times – over a hurdle on which are perched two glasses of champagne. He’s never missed.
But I couldn’t help thinking – why do this? The story of the fiercely competitive Harold Abrahams and the profoundly devout Eric Liddell, who refused to run on a Sunday because of his religious beliefs, is a good one and worth the retelling. But by sticking so closely to the film it got a bit lost in translation. The characters tended to merge into one another – none of them, bar the two leads, was clearly identifiable. The perhaps most interesting character, Abraham’s coach, who was frowned on in the world of ‘gentlemanly’ amateurism, was under-written.
What was interesting was to see patriotic songs such as ‘Jerusalem’ sung without a hint of irony. Something that could only take place in the year of the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics.