The theme tune for Chariots of Fire must be one of the more famous pieces of 80s. The name alone summons images of running, the Olympics and… well, 80s synth to be honest. I, however, had never seen the film version or experienced the story in any capacity before Mike Bartlett’s play (currently at the Hampstead Theatre before a transfer to the Gielgud). In truth, I was incredibly intrigued to see how a film based on running could be transformed into a play.
This is a clever production in many ways. Miriam Buether’s design is intelligent and very simple, making good use of the Hampstead’s structure in the round. Buether’s set (including a revolving stage, circular running track – which runs through the auditorium, and uncomplicated set pieces brought on by the company) easily draws the audience into the ever-changing locations in the play. Buether’s idea of a circular stage that revolves in two separate pieces (one often as a running track and the other slowly throughout scenes, to give the audience full view of the scenario) is smart and sensitive, with obvious thought given to both the ease of the actors on stage and the audience.
Scott Ambler creates choreography that is used throughout the piece, often to work in tandem with the running that takes place. Ambler’s choreography is athletic and perfectly crafted for the purpose of the show, creating something that looks very sports-based. I must also mention the incredible training that the cast have undertaken (with a trainer from British Military Fitness) as the stamina, energy and athletic ability that is required in this show is unheard of and truly astounding.
Scenes that involve numerous company members are a joy to watch as their energy can only be described as electric (which now helps me understand the use of synth in the theme tune). The starring role in this production lies with the ensemble who beautifully sustain, support and entertain throughout. Having said this, I was particularly struck by the performances of Joe Bannister (who swaps accents and characters effortlessly and yet gives such charismatic and defined performances for each role he takes on), Natasha Broomfield (who is simply delightful as Jennie Liddell), Nicholas Woodeson (who is brilliant as the robust and characterful Sam Mussabini), Tam Williams (as the enchanting Lord Lindsey) and Jack Lowden as Eric Liddell (whose technique and ability are really quite extraordinary). James McArdle could have found more nuances and levels in his portrayal of Harold Abrahams in my opinion, though, as I found it very difficult to empathise with (or like) a character that seemed so overly smug and full of himself.
Chariots of Fire is a strong production that very cleverly mixes the world of running with theatre, whilst beautifully showcasing a young and talented ensemble. Ditch the Olympics this summer and catch Chariots of Fire instead.
Chariots of Fire is playing at the Hampstead Theatre until 16 June before transferring to the West End. For more information and tickets, see the Hampstead Theatre website.