A bit slow off the starting blocks with this one.
Anyway, a tip: don’t ask the ushers at Chariots of Fire if Mr Bean is appearing. At the first post-opening ceremony performance Phil checked but they had apparently been asked several times already.
Failing to obtain tickets for any Olympic events, this seemed the nearest alternative to try and get into the spirit of the games and Phil was intrigued: he’d been having a drink outside a hostelry near the Gielgud Theatre a few days earlier when a complete stranger came up and congratulated him on his performance in COF. Who could she mean? Most of the cast weren’t even born when that strangely over-awarded 1981 film came out which left a few of the more senior cast members. So Nicholas Grace or Simon Williams perhaps? Bizarre.
This West End transfer from the Hampstead Theatre was announced before it even opened there; so in some ways swifter than
Mark Cavendish Lizzie Armitstead Wiggo.
The running track up in NW3 apparently ahem, ran all all the way round the auditorium there. The Gielgud presents bigger problems so only ahem, runs around the first few rows of the stalls and presumably this isn’t visible to the higher reaches of the audience. But if you sit on the stage (as we did) you’ll catch the breeze of the actors (and a whiff of wardrobe care) as they thud past at speed. Immersive enough for us, but even without roller skates it does evoke memories of Starlight Express.
If you’re too young to be familiar with the story it tells of two prototypes for Team GB competing in the 1924 Paris Olympics: Jewish Harold Abrahams (James McArdle) battling the prejudices of the time and Eric Liddell (Jack Lowden) who is such a devout Christian he won’t compete on Sundays.
Not only are the actors required to act, but sing, play musical instruments and run. And run pretty fast too given the confines of the space allotted. And on slopes. And sometimes in a figure of eight without bumping into each other or the furniture. One of them is called upon to jump a hurdle without knocking over the full champagne glasses sitting upon it. This he does successfully, several times. Better put champagne flutes on either side of Zara’s jumping poles if she makes it Rio we say. If you sit on the stage you’re not allowed to take your interval snifter back in with you. Just as well. The Whingers might have been tempted to place them on the hurdle too, just to see exactly how coordinated the actor really is.
Director Edward Hall makes extraordinary calls on his cast; one hopes he also makes them do his washing-up and ironing whilst performing on the uneven bars. It’s quite likely they’d handle it with aplomb.
The tale is told in a series of ever-changing scenes using a double revolve (design Miriam Buether) with the occasional clever directorial flourish: Sam Mussabini’s (Nicholas Woodeson) training session with Liddell becomes an Eadweard Muybridge-styled tableau most effectively and as you take your seats for Act 2 Simon Slater becomes a genial warm-up man interacting with the audience most amusingly.
Having heard that audiences get quite emotional at the end we came prepared. The opening of the play is stirringly spine-tingling in itself, but as it chugged to its close Phil was feeling nothing. Then suddenly it happened. Phil was shaken that he was so stirred even before Vangelis’ over-familiar strains kicked in. Expect to deposit something moist into a tissue. Phil did.
Running time, ahem: 2hrs 30 minutes.