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In God's name making the world sit up

by
13 July 2012

Peter Graystone sees the West End stage version of the story of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams

HUGH GLENDENNING

Running the race: Jack Lowden as Eric Liddell (left) and James McArdle as Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire

Running the race: Jack Lowden as Eric Liddell (left) and James McArdle as Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire

THE beginning of the director Edward Hall's stage version of the Oscar-winning British film Chariots of Fire is magnificent. For 20 minutes, as the audience arrives, the 20-strong cast, dressed in Lycra and trainers, are limbering up and stretching as if preparing for a marathon. Almost imperceptibly, the leaping and straining become choreographed into movement as drilled and elegant as a musical. The pace increases, and the running extends on to a circular track built out into the middle of the stalls.

Like a call from a bygone age, the 1981 film's memorable theme music begins to float through the theatre. One by one, the modern-day athletes peel off and are replaced from out of the mist by their counterparts in 1920s white cotton. The stage begins to revolve as Vangelis's music swells, and Eric Liddell, Harold Abrahams, Lord Lindsey, and the rest of the British athletics team that triumphed unexpectedly in the 1924 Olympic Games are muscle and bone (but mainly muscle) in front of us.

For this stage version, Mike Bartlett has adapted Colin Welland's film script to tell the story of the chequered route that Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams took on their way to gold medals in the Olympic Games held in Paris in the shadow of the First World War. It would be understandable if the drama that followed failed to live up to the bravura opening, but for three hours the tension never lets up.

This is remarkable in view of the fact that practically everyone knows how the story ends. The dialogue crackles, the dilemmas of the characters are compelling, and the spectacle never stops. In the moments when the cast are not on the move across Miriam Buether's set of running tracks and concentric revolving stages, they pick up instruments and provide musical interludes.

The story is told in a series of quick-fire scenes. Harold Abrahams, whose father was a Lithuanian Jew, arrives at Cambridge University as an uncomfortable outsider. James McArdle plays him with the restlessness of a man for whom "running is a weapon". The anti-Semitic prejudice, especially among the academics, is subtle, barely spoken, but ever present. For him, victory is a triumph not just of speed, but of principle. His scenes are played in a convincing pageant of privileged English life in the 1920s, with a Gilbert and Sullivan accompaniment. (Abrahams married the D'Oyly Carte soprano Sybil Evers.)

The awkwardness of his relationship with the Establishment is underlined by the fact that he employed a professional coach in an age when doing so was frowned on as an affront to splendid amateurism. As Sam Mussabini, Nicholas Woodeson is a dumpy, comical presence, and the most unlikely usher imaginable of the age of all-consuming sport that we now know.

In contrast, Eric Liddell's Scottish scenes are conjured up with bagpipes and the enjoyment of simple pleasures. Liddell is handsomely played by Jack Lowden, who manages to make apparently restrictive Christian imperatives seem logical and sympathetic. Liddell was the son of a missionary in China, and his devout faith shaped his life from beginning to end. His motivation for running is "to be a muscular Christian and make people sit up and listen". His moment of crisis comes when he discovers that the heats of the 100 metres race are to be run on a Sunday. Aware that the hopes of a nation are resting with him (and the disappointment of never knowing whether he or Abrahams would have triumphed head-to-head), his quandary is intense. He is entered instead in the 400 metres, a race that he had rarely run competitively. "Run in God's name and make the world sit up and wonder," he is told. He did.

This is the last of a dozen races that are staged during the evening with breathless inventiveness, and it packs an almighty emotional punch. Very few of the audience managed to survive from that point to the standing ovation without tears.

Pedants will undoubtedly point out that, for the sake of dramatic tension, some of the historical facts have been refined. Those who wish to read the true story of the faiths of Liddell and Abrahams can find it at www.christianity.org.uk. But anyone who is proud to be Christian, proud to be British, or just glad to have a moral compass will find this production affirming and unforgettable. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Chariots of Fire continues its run at the Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1, until 10 November 2013. Phone 0844 482 5130.

www.chariotsoffireonstage.co.uk

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