By Courtney Leigh Church, April 24, 2018
“Chariots of Fire” marks the final heat of what has been an impressive season at London’s Grand Theatre.
Like the iconic 1981 film on which it is based, the theatrical adaptation of “Chariots of Fire” follows the story of two men, Harold Abrahams (Harry Judge) and Eric Liddell (Wade Bogert-O’Brien), on their respective journeys to compete for England in the 1924 Olympics.
The play opens in 1919 as Abrahams arrives at the train station in Cambridge to begin his undergraduate education. Son of a Polish immigrant and the only Jewish scholar in an overwhelmingly Christian university, Abrahams quickly concludes that he is estranged from his peers. He dedicates most of his time to running, furthering his social isolation in favour of his sport.
Far to the north, Scotsman Liddell is anything but an outcast; his father and his community support his athletic dreams, and he is the heart and soul of the Scottish Games. His plight is the fight to win the support of his sister, Jennie (Erin Breen), who feels as though Eric has forgotten God in his quest for athletic glory.
The men race ever so quickly toward the Olympics in Paris, though many hurdles stand in their way.
Harry Judge’s Abrahams carries the weight of his Jewish religion on his shoulders. His eyes are sharp and expression hard. Though I wanted to empathize with the underdog, Judge’s resolve initially comes off as more stubborn and obstinate than impassioned. As he grows to connect with his fellow Englishmen, however, his front falls by the wayside in the eyes of both his on-stage peers and the audience.
Wade Bogert-O’Brien’s Liddell is an amiable Scot; his love of running seems to eclipse his religious reverence at first until inevitably forced to choose between the two. Liddell shares a distant relationship with his sister, Jennie, played by Erin Breen. Bogert-O’Brien and Breen have a natural sibling dynamic; the tension between their love for one another and their religious disagreement is palpable.
At its core, the play tends toward the tenacity and adversity characteristic of your typical sports film. As such, it has its fair share of cheesy moments that both delight and make you groan. Given that the story is set against the backdrop of the Great War and the deeply personal religious dilemmas of the two main characters, the lighter moments are appreciated, even essential.
The Grand’s “Chariots” does a remarkable job of capturing the film’s tone in a space that is true to the theatre. This is largely thanks to set and costume designer Bretta Gerecke, whose work here is immaculate.
In keeping with her previous work at the Stratford Festival on “As You Like It” and “The Diary of Anne Frank,” the set has few colours and no major scene changes. The brown speckled floor with red-lined lanes forms a track running around the stage. A track also runs through the audience where two rows of chairs have been removed from the orchestra. Spectators have the option of booking seats on stage where stadium stands are your ticket into the 1924 Olympics. During a scene depicting the Scottish Games audience members on stage are offered flags and banners to cheer on their respective sides, a charming touch.
Like the white costumes of the runners, the stage has the appearance of simplicity: sparse, with only a handful of chairs at hand to set the scene. When the races begin, however, the revolving platform at centre stage comes into play.
The running scenes are the most unique aspect of the production and they set the play apart from the film to which it pays tribute. At times the runners take off in single file, winding from wing to wing and through the in-house track. During other scenes they run in place, spinning together in a line as the revolving stage turns. The ensemble, made up of actors Michael Ayres, Al Braatz, Ben Cookson, David Michael Moote, Joe Perry, and Edmund Stapleton, maintains a truly mesmerizing momentum. The men flow together like water.
The production also manages to translate film transitions into theatrical form. In film, the scene can pan from place to place; theatre, however, is uniquely confined by time and space. “Chariots” uses musical interludes and a singing chorus to pan from scene to scene which achieves the effect of film through dramatic means.
One particular scene caught my eye as a piece of theatrical genius. Abrahams and his coach, Sam (Anand Rajaram) want to size up the competition, and so they turn on ‘tape’ of the American runners England will be up against at the Olympics. Running figures enter the stage immersed in blue, stroboscope light, accompanied by the familiar clickity-clack of an old projector. It’s a clever nod to a familiar trope of the sports film genre but wholly theatrical in form.
At one point Liddell says, “Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way.” True to this sentiment, the Grand’s “Chariots” takes an iconic film and runs with it in its own, theatrical way.
Chariots of Fire
The Grand Theatre
April 17 to May 5
Purchase tickets online