Adapted for the stage by Mike Bartlett
Based on the Enigma Productions Limited Motion Picture
By arrangement with Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
And Allied Stars S.A. Panama
Screenplay by Colin Welland
Directed by Edward Hall
★★★★★ The Sunday Times
★★★★★ Daily Mail
★★★★ The Guardian
★★★★ Evening Standard
★★★★ The Financial Times
★★★★ Time Out
★★★★ The Times
‘The human Warhorse’ Mark Lawson, Front Row, BBC Radio 4, 23 May 2012
Chariots of Fire has now sold out at Hampstead Theatre. There is a returns queue for each performance and any tickets returned will be distributed on a first come first served basis an hour before the show starts. Chariots of Fire transfers to the West End on 23 June at The Gielgud Theatre.Please click here to book tickets.()
1924. The Paris Olympic Games.
A devout Scottish Christian runs for the glory of God. The son of an immigrant Lithuanian Jew runs to overcome prejudice. Two young track athletes who live for the beautiful purity of running and who prevail in the face of overwhelming odds.
Based on the extraordinary true story of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, Chariots of Fire is an Olympic tale of hope, honour and belief.
Mike Bartlett is bringing one of the most thrilling Olympic stories to the stage for the first time in a dazzling new adaptation from Colin Welland’s original screenplay. His plays include Earthquakes in London for Headlong Theatre, 13 for the National, Love, Love, Love for Paines Plough, the Olivier Award Winning Cock, Contractions and My Child at the Royal Court and Artefacts at the Bush.
Directed by Hampstead Theatre’s Artistic Director Edward Hall, Chariots of Fire promises to be the theatrical event of our Olympic year.
Award winning designer Miriam Buether will be transforming Hampstead Theatre into its very own stadium giving an immersive experience that evokes the 1924 Paris Olympics. The production will also feature the music of the legendary Vangelis score with additional live music and arrangements by Tony Award winning composer Jason Carr.
RUNNING TIME: 2 hours and 30 minutes including a 20 minute interval.
*Image of Harold Abrahams winning the 100m in the 1924 Olympics courtesy of Mary Evans Picture Library.
|Sat 16 Jun||3:00pm||Archived|
|Sat 16 Jun||7:30pm||Archived|
‘It’s Edward Halls staging that’s the real winner. The problem was always going to be, how will they do the running without looking ridiculous? Slo-mo? Video trickery? Concealed conveyor belts? The answer is large turntable and actors pounding round the theatre as we sit in a circle – and far from being ridiculous, it’s pure exhilaration. At one point Jack Lowden (Eric Liddell) pounds the wooden boards of the Hampstead in leather-soled brown brogues, which deserves particular praise, while the race around Trinity Great Court and Liddell’s climatic 400m run are absolutely thrilling in their own right..
The whole evening makes for a wickedly timed antidote to all that stuff going on out east, and with a transfer to the West End starting on June 22, this is surely one of the great treats of the summer.’
‘Heading to the Hampstead Theatre for the stage version of Chariots of Fire, I tried to imagine how they would do all those sprinting scenes from the celebrated film.
How would they capture the spirit of the 1924 Olympic Games when the British runners included Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, the Scots churchgoer whose religious observance of Sundays prevented him from running in the 100 metres?
Surely the actors would not leg it round the theatre, I told myself. Surely we would have a surfeit of slow-motion stuff and flickering black and white film.
Pah! What did I know? They do indeed run – sprint, even, working up big sweats. There is no lazy resorting to antique footage. This show is both a physical and creative work-out.
The Hampstead has been reconfigured to allow not only a revolve in the middle of the acting area but also a running track which bisects the stalls.
Director Edward Hall has plainly had a ball, not only with his floorplan but also with a large, well-drilled, multi-tasking cast who show that Equity could probably field a decent running team.
At first the action is bewildering. I almost felt a stitch coming on, there was so much speed and noise. If this stirring production has a fault, it may be that the theatricalities are overdone. The seats vibrate to the thump of runners’ gym shoes. There is so much to-ing and fro-ing – steam from a train, Cambridge University fresher jollities – that it is a relief when things hush for a moment and we hear a grandfather clock strike in the Liddell family house. Time to catch your breath.
Once the story of the Abrahams-Liddell rivalry is established, the action becomes only thrilling. Abrahams is fuelled by anger at being excluded on account of his Jewishness. Liddell is powered by his faith. Abrahams (James McArdle) is ruthless, obsessed, methodical. Liddell (Jack Lowden) is amicable, stubborn, another loner.
Both actors are splendid. First-class support comes from, among others, Nicholas Woodeson as a running coach, Savannah Stevenson as Abrahams’ operatic girlfriend, Simon Williams as a Cambridge college master and Simon Slater in numerous roles, including that of interval bandmaster.
A fast outsider’s determination is honoured. So is a good man’s burning loyalty to God. Gold medals all round.’
‘A stage adaptation of Chariots Of Fire seems almost inevitable in the year that London hosts the Olympics. Some might call it cynical. But Mike Bartlett’s generous interpretation of the Oscar-winning early-Eighties film is already scheduled to transfer to the West End, and it’s the sort of stirring crowd-pleaser that is likely to do well there.
Set during the buildup to the 1924 Paris Olympics, and at the Games themselves, it’s above all a potently realised spectacle, for which designer Miriam Buether has reconfigured Hampstead Theatre’s playing space. There are shades of Starlight Express as the cast spin across the stage — and leave it to whoosh and thump through the audience.
The story, no doubt familiar to many, is full of confrontations: between ruthless Harold Abrahams, the son of a Lithuanian Jewish financier, and God-fearing Scottish rugby star Eric Liddell, as well as between each of the two men and the authorities.
Abrahams is played with a steely glint by James McArdle, and Jack Lowden convinces as the devout, defiant Liddell. There’s cogent ensemble work, too. Among those who make a keen impression are Nickolas Grace as Master of Abrahams’s Cambridge college, and Tam Williams, admirably vigorous and vaguely louche as athletic aristo Lord Andrew Lindsay, who has to do a lot of precisely measured hurdling.
Edward Hall’s assured staging features brawny choreography by Scott Ambler, Vangelis’s original music from the film (supplemented with a good deal of Gilbert and Sullivan) and some very effective lighting by Rick Fisher. A tribute in the programme to a coach from British Military Fitness is hardly a surprise: the challenges of the production are punishing yet handled with aplomb.’
‘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 in fact being one.
You want songs? Adaptor Mike Bartlett has whimsically peppered his script with cast-sung renditions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s greatest hits, to evoke the genteel post WW1 Britain in which 1924 Olympic gold-winning sprinters Harold Abrahams (James McArdle) and Eric Liddell (Jack Lowden) raced – plus Vangelis’s iconic score is present and correct.
You want dancing? Scott Ambler’s neat choreography solves the ‘problem’ of the running sequences by turning many 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 the Hampstead in the round, with a revolve, on two tiers, and is allegedly going to do something similar for the Gielgud when the show transfers to the West End next month.
McArdle’s Abrahams is the star here: his outer suaveness and matinee idol jawline is a mask that slowly corrodes under 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 final race is a mild anti-climax – you can’t really replicate a 440m men’s race in a theatre – but the moment shortly after, in which a cast rendition of ‘Jerusalem’ segues into a thunderous reprise of Vangelis’s theme, gets those endorphins pumping nicely.’
“Will it run?” people asked when they first heard that the celebrated 1981 movie was to be adapted for the stage. That question seems to have been answered by the news that this Hampstead production is already scheduled to transfer to the Gielgud. But I’d suggest that it’s Edward Hall’s bravura production that makes the evening memorable rather than any radical new twist that Mike Bartlett offers on the original Colin Welland screenplay.
As before, the story follows the chequered progress of two British athletes towards participation in the 1924 Paris Olympics.
The ruthlessly determined Harold Abrahams, as the son of a Lithuanian Jew, is driven partly by a desire to overcome the antisemitic prejudice that he encounters, not least among the dons when he goes up to Cambridge. And Eric Liddell, as the son of a China-based Scottish missionary, is powered by his unremitting Christian faith: something that causes consternation when he pulls out of a 100 metres Olympics heat because it is to be run on a Sunday. Different in some ways, the two men are markedly similar in others: both show a self-punishing dedication and both jeopardise their emotional relationships, with either girl-friend or sister, to achieve success on the track.
The story is told in a succession of quick, staccato scenes that betray the piece’s cinematic origin. But Hall’s production ingeniously solves the problem of putting athletics on stage thanks to a characteristically brilliant Miriam Buether set. She turns the theatre into a series of concentric circles so that the main acting-area is a rounded disc equipped with two revolving stages. Behind the stalls runs another circular track which the actors constantly pound. Wherever you sit, you are bound to feel the whiff and wind of hurtling bodies in a state of seemingly perpetual motion.
But Hall has gone further and turned the play into a kaleidoscopic pageant of 1920s British life. He seizes on the fact that Abrahams was dating a D’Oyly Carte mezzo-soprano to use Gilbert and Sullivan as a constant motif so that even a vital hurdles race is set to a chorus from The Pirates of Penzance.
Meanwhile, Riddell’s devout Scottishness is underscored by the sound of the bagpipes. Music director Simon Slater, who plays several key roles, also incorporates a medley of British folk tunes into the action and, for good measure, we even get the triumphalist Vangelis theme from the movie. The inevitably fragmented script is bound together by the running-track action and the multitrack music.’
‘Edward Hall enjoys playing with his versatile theatre, and this is the most audacious mutation yet. A dozen young men thunder dangerously aloft, around, behind and across us, change the scenery at a hurtling pace, break into choreographed freezes, every emotion expressed in muscle. Thrilling.
Even this grump Olymposceptic was brought to actual tears, moved to empathy and understanding the famous theatricality of it. Blond, angel-faced Jack Lowden is outstanding as Liddell (playing saints is hard) and James McArdle a scowling intense Abrahams. Mike Bartlett’s adaptation creates unobtrusively useful extra dialogue. Nicholas Woodeson is superb as the Arab-Italian coach Mussabini, even more unwelcome than the Jew to the stuffed-shirt establishment, gleefully caricatured by Simon Williams and Nickolas Grace. ‘
‘Immediately after its Hampstead run, this adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1981 film transfers to the West End. Its success there will depend at least partly on the degree to which Miriam Buether’s set can be re-created in the less flexible environment of the Gielgud Theatre. Buether, with her customary flair and audacity, has turned the entire Hampstead space into the 1924 Paris Olympic stadium, with not only a central “field” on which most of the acting takes place, but a running track through the audience on all four sides for the real action.
The movie’s screenwriter Colin Welland may have been over-optimistic when he declared to Hollywood in 1981, “The British are coming!”, but now that the rest of the world is coming to Britain, the intertwined stories of runners Harold Abrahams (played by James McArdle) and Eric Liddell (Jack Lowden) make a fine Olympic-season project. Mike Bartlett adapts with respect for, but not slavish dependence on, the screenplay; he does not, for instance, reschedule the Great Court Run around the perimeter of Trinity College, Cambridge from noon as in the film to midnight as in real life. He utilises the stage’s greater ability to open up to the protagonists’ inner voices, showing Abrahams’ preoccupation with his never-present father and in particular Liddell’s devout brand of muscular Christianity, which led him to refuse to run in an Olympic heat on a Sunday.
Edward Hall uses all his considerable adroitness in directing a cast that also includes Tam Willams and Simon Williams, Nickolas Grace and Nicholas Woodeson as Abrahams’ trainer (“Coach!”) Sam Mussabini. My sole reservation is that, au fond, this is not the celebration of the diversity of Britishness that it pretends to be, but rather of a particular concept of Englishness. Even the very Scottish Liddell’s stance of principle is somehow assimilated by, and in stage time exceeded by, the Gilbert & Sullivan-threaded scenes at Cambridge; Abrahams may have been keenly conscious of his Jewishness, but he immediately integrated into this culture.
The closing musical number is the hymn from which the title comes, “Jerusalem”, which is quite specific that the green and pleasant land in point is England’s alone. Actually, that’s not quite true: the very final number is Vangelis’s iconic “BOMMM-tsht-tsht-tsht-tsht” theme; it could be no other.’
‘The slow-motion run across the beach, the stirring strains of Vangelis, the look of determination on the faces of the British hopefuls competing at the 1924 Paris Olympic Games – just some of the images forever associated with Hugh Hudson’s sweeping 1981 film.
In Edward Hall’s new stage version there’s not so much slow-mo but there are winning ingredients, not least the use of Vangelis’ iconic score and an auditorium that has rather brilliantly been reconceived as a stadium where the stage is a circular revolving track with the audience sitting all around.
Not only does this provide an immersive thrill it also means that when the actors start sprinting, not just on stage but all round the auditorium, the physicality of the sport is brought home. You can hear the panting, see the sweat and feel the thud of each stride and, boy, can this company run. It’s as though they’ve done a marathon by the end of the night.
With all that going on it’s tempting to forget how good the underlying real-life story is. Mike Bartlett’s adaptation sticks faithfully to the screenplay, centring on the beliefs and motivations of the two fastest Britons of their time.
Eric Liddell is the Christian Scot whose faith is so strong he jeopardises Olympic glory by refusing to run on the Sabbath while Harold Abrahams is the Jewish Cambridge student whose all-consuming desperation to be the best may be spurred on by his experience of anti-Semitism.
With all that going on it’s tempting to forget how good the underlying real-life story is. James McArdle captures something of Abrahams’ single‑minded intensity, while as Liddell, Jack Lowden even replicates his head-thrown-back running style. As Lord Lindsay, Tam Williams has a cracking scene, hurdling over a gate without knocking over the two filled champagne glasses balancing on it.
It all amounts to a rousing evening where the sense of Britishness is enhanced by snippets of Gilbert and Sullivan. With all the buzz of the running you’re even inclined to pass over the faults, though some fine‑tuning could be beneficial. The production’s West End transfer – it goes to the Gielgud Theatre in June – may seem quick off the blocks but it proves deservedly won.’