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Chariots of Fire

Edward Hall's stage version of the Oscar-winning film about two very different runners is physically exciting, but too slick to be genuinely uplifting.

A scene from Chariots of Fire
(© Manuel Harlan)
Edward Hall's stage production of the Oscar-wining film, Chariots of Fire, now at the West End's Gieldgud Theatre after an earlier run at the Hampstead, is tailor-made to tap into London's Olympic spirit. It's stuffed full of patriotic anthems and lashings of Gilbert and Sullivan; but for all its physicality, it never quite transcends its screen-to-stage status.

Mike Bartlett's functional if fragmented adaptation remains fairly faithful to Colin Welland's original screenplay, contrasting two very different but equally talented athletes. The principled and good natured Scottish Sabbatarian Eric Liddell (Jack Lowden) runs as a way of praising God. His technique is scrappy, but his passion and commitment carry him through.

Meanwhile, Harold Abrahams (James McArdle), the son of a Lithuanian Jew, is equally driven. Unlike Liddell, though, Abrahams runs to win at any cost and to prove himself the fastest. To this end, he employs a gruff but kindly professional coach (Nicholas Woodeson), which angers his masters at Cambridge who believe that British sportsmanship should remain amateur and gentlemanly .

Hall milks the subject matter's sense of sporting nostalgia for all its worth. As the audience take their seats, a group of athletes in modern sporting kit are performing warm-ups on the stage. Then, as the production gets underway they start to run circuits, to be gradually replaced with men in 1920s running shorts as the film's famous theme music by Vangelis kicks in.

Miriam Buether's distinctive design has been reworked for the West End space. Instead of a stage, there is a running track that loops round the first few rows of the audience and allows for the play's (many) running sequences to take place.

It's exciting at first, watching the performers tear round the track -- a bit like Starlight Express for grown-ups -- but despite being impeccably choreographed by Scott Ambler, these sequences grow less thrilling the more of them we see, and the closing scenes at the 1924 Paris Olympics suffer for the sense of wearying repetition of men running in circles, even if McArdle and Lowden are charismatic enough as the two leads.

While there are some striking set-pieces (one featuring hurdles and champagne glasses is particularly impressive), the production ultimately just feels a little too calculated and slick to really excite and uplift.