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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Gielgud


  Ph: Manuel Harlan

Mike Bartlett’s adaptation of this well-loved British classic film with original screenplay by Colin Welland had announced its transfer from the modestly sized Hampstead Theatre to the West End before it even opened. Call it the Olympic fervour in the air, with London on the verge of playing host to the 2012 Games; or the patriotism reawakened in some breasts by the celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee – largely undampened by a weekend of typically English, relentlessly wet weather. But if the show’s commercial success has undeniably benefitted from the wisdom of its timing, it also wins gold for the ingenuity of its staging, and that is thanks less to Bartlett’s rather episodic and occasionally sentimental script, than to a triumphant production by Edward Hall and designer Miriam Buether.
Buether arranges the audience in stadium-style seating, through which a running track winds, before arriving at a central playing space made up of concentric revolving rings. This, brilliantly, permits the actors to perform feats of choreographed athleticism that are not only graceful and thrilling, but genuinely physically demanding. They belt around the stage and through the spectators, the force of their movement slicing the air, beads of sweat flying; and as the action begins, to the familiar strains of the famous Vangelis score from the movie, freshly spruced up by the composer, youngsters in the Stella McCartney-designed 2012 British strip mingle with the 1924 athletes. Here, and in the show’s final rousing chorus of "Jerusalem," it’s hard to resist this hymn to human endeavour and achievement.
The story, of course, is that of Jewish outsider Harold Abrahams (James McArdle) and devout Scots Christian Eric Liddell (Jack Lowden), both of whom won seemingly unlikely honours in the 1924 Olympics. At Cambridge, among a camaraderie from which he feels partially excluded, Abrahams regards running as a battle against anti-Semitism and a means of winning the approval of his emotionally remote father. For Liddell, the future missionary – whose sister regards his sporting prowess as “showing off” – it is an affirmation of his faith, performed for God’s greater glory: “God made me fast, and when I run, I can I feel His pleasure.” But if Liddell, with his distinctive flailing arms and thrown-back head, is a model of untutored talent, Abrahams raises eyebrows and icy disapproval when he infringes on the Olympic ethos of amateur competition by enlisting the help of a coach – the canny Sam Mussabini (Nicholas Woodeson), who with his foreign ancestry is a fellow outsider and a father figure to the young man. But will either runner be a match for the scientifically honed, beefcake American team? And will the fervently religious Liddell be able to compete at all, when it emerges that his 100-meter heat is scheduled to take place on a Sunday?
There will be few who don’t know the outcome – or at least, the more romantic and dramatically satisfying aspects of it that this fictionalised version of history permits. But what’s beguiling is the way in which Hall finds a theatrical language for the film’s kaleidoscopic narrative, keeping the action flying along, crammed with colour and detail and radiating energy. The bustle of Cambridge life is intermingled with scenes from performances by the University’s Gilbert and Sullivan Society, which in turn bleed into a trip to see the D’Oyly Carte Company, where Abrahams becomes smitten with his future wife, the opera troupe’s leading lady Sybil Evers (Savannah Stevenson). A skirling Highland Fling of pipes and whistles transports us to Scotland, and Liddell’s unaffected local heroism. McArdle and Lowden both compel in their roles, two contrasting foci in the midst of the swirl of activity; but there’s fine supporting work all around, particularly from Tam Williams as the louche, likeable toff, Andrew, Lord Lindsey. The scene in which he trains for his event by balancing a pair of full glasses of champagne atop a hurdle and then leaping repeatedly over it without spilling a drop is an unforgettable blend of extravagant folly and sheer style.
But it’s the sense of hope, of ambition against the odds, that gives the production its real power. Perhaps, in these gloomy, economically straitened times, that’s another reason it’s proving popular; and it is a spirit that burns as brightly here as any Olympic flame.


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