Olympic Champions Dash Around London Stage in ‘Chariots’

'Chariots of Fire'
James McArdle in "Chariots of Fire" at the Gielgud Theater in London. McArdle plays Harold Abrahams, a Jewish man who overcomes upper-class prejudice to achieve his dreams. Photographer: Manuel Harlan/Premier PR via Bloomberg

The Olympic-themed “Chariots of Fire,” adapted by Mike Bartlett from the Academy Award-winning movie of 1981, arrives at the Gielgud Theatre in London.

The feel-good show, which had a tryout in Hampstead, milks the interest surrounding the coming London games.

It tells the true story of two runners who fought to compete in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Harold Abrahams (James McArdle), a wealthy Jewish student at Cambridge University, overcomes upper-class anti-Semitic prejudice to be accepted as an athlete.

“His father’s a financier,” comments the narrow-minded head of Abrahams’s college. “What on earth does that mean?” splutters a doddery don. “I believe it’s a euphemism,” comes the reply.

The other runner is Eric Liddell (Jack Lowden), a devout Scottish Christian who runs for the glory of God. His family accuses him of running for the glory of his own ego, and he has to convince them otherwise.

Later, when Liddell finds that an Olympic 100-meter race is scheduled for a Sunday, he refuses to run on the Sabbath. The British Olympic Committee is furious. Even the Prince of Wales can’t persuade Liddell to change his mind.

Gold Medals

Things work out when another competitor drops out of the 400-meter race to allow Liddell to compete in his place.

Self sacrifice. Courage. Conviction. Play up and play the game! That sort of thing.

I hope there won’t be accusations of plot-spoiling with the revelation that both men get gold medals, while the famous theme tune written by Vangelis for the movie thunders out. It’s that sort of show. Sometimes effective, yes. Complex? No.

The fact that Abrahams later finished last in the 200-meter race isn’t mentioned. A hero who doesn’t win everything? A character whose self-sacrifice doesn’t pay off? What next?

Far too dangerous to feed those sorts of things to an audience. They might start agitating for some Chekhov.

Director Edward Hall creates a slick production on a central revolving stage. A looped running track curves around it and stretches into the auditorium (designs Miriam Buether). The track runs in front of stadium-type audience seats on stage too.

Whizzing Around

The very fit members of the male ensemble whizz around it a lot, recreating many of the races, and no doubt punishing their ankles in the process.

The problem is that once you’ve seen them run around it once, it loses its attraction. Thoughts of hamsters and wheels spring to mind. The 2 hours and 30 minutes the play lasts feels overlong in places.

There are other enjoyments. Abrahams falls in love with a soprano called Sybil Evers (Savannah Stevenson), and a neatly staged performance of the trio “Three Little Maids” from “The Mikado” shows her at work.

The whole ensemble, which seems to be as musical as it is muscular, picks up instruments to entertain the audience with “Rule Britannia” and “A Policeman’s Lot” before Act 2.

McArdle captures Abrahams’s ruthless determination and fighting spirit, and Nicholas Woodeson is delightful as his crotchety-yet-loveable trainer Sam Mussabini. Lowden is a blander figure as Liddell: You rarely feel the fire of his religious passion or love of running, even when he’s battling the aggressive Olympic Committee.

The rest of the ensemble is good, and it’s hard not to leave the theater humming that Vangelis melody. Thoughts of the traffic jams, disturbances and disruptions in the U.K. capital during this summer’s games are banished for a few moments. Rating: **.

“Chariots of Fire” is at the Gielgud Theatre, London. Information: http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk or +44-844-482-5136.

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on the auction market, Jorg von Uthmann on Paris art and Jason Harper on cars.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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