Chariots of Fire play limbers up for West End run

Scene from Chariots of Fire The production sees actors sprinting through the theatre's converted auditorium

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A stage version of Chariots of Fire has premiered in London and is now set for a West End run during the Olympics.

The production, at the Hampstead Theatre, sees its actors sprinting through an auditorium that has been converted into a race track.

"You can feel the wind as they rush past," said writer Mike Bartlett, who based his stage show on Colin Welland's Oscar-winning screenplay.

The play also features the original music theme by Vangelis.

Bartlett's play retells the story of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams' quest to become the fastest men on earth at the 1924 Paris Olympics despite religious obstacles.

Directed by Edward Hall, the cast of 21 includes James McArdle as Abrahams and Jack Lowden as Liddell.

Early reviews were positive. "Even if the piece sometimes plays too easily on our emotional responses, it is an ensemble triumph that will clearly enjoy the longest of runs," said The Guardian's Michael Billington.

"You can't help thinking of Starlight Express in the race track that travels around the theatre," tweeted The Stage's Mark Shenton after Tuesday's opening night.

"On its own terms Chariots of Fire definitely delivers (especially if you've not seen the film) and I reckon will be a huge popular success."

The 1981 film starred Ian Charleson and Ben Cross and won four Oscars, including best picture and best music.

James McArdle and Jack Lowden in Chariots of Fire James McArdle (left) and Jack Lowden play Abrahams and Liddell

Its director Hugh Hudson, who was at Tuesday's opening night, said it was important to retain Vangelis's acclaimed score.

"Vangelis's music is part of the drive and emotion - it is essential," he said. "People expect it."

Bartlett - whose plays include Earthquakes in London and Love, Love, Love, currently at the Royal Court - said he was aware the film still meant a lot to people.

"The question was always, 'Why bother making the film into a play?'" he told the BBC.

"The answer was always in the running - come and see them run! You can feel their sweat as they rush past you.

"There's a real link between the drama of a sporting event and the athleticism of a drama."

Hampstead Theatre artistic director Edward Hall said he knew from the outset he wanted the play to feature real athletics.

"We trained very intensively when we were rehearsing," he said. "And since we started here they warm up for about 45 minutes before they begin and warm down after."

The actors had to go through auditions for acting, singing and physical fitness and have a physiotherapist and a fitness coach to keep them in shape.

That Chariots of Fire is being staged in the year of the London 2012 Olympics is important, Hall went on.

"It's about two great British heroes. Both of them are outsiders and to me it encapsulates everything that is great and inclusive about Britain.

"You've got the son of an immigrant Lithuanian Jew and a Scottish Christian fundamentalist and both of them become heroes of the British establishment."

Bartlett admits it is unusual for him to come up with a "feel-good" play. "We're used to theatre that's very provocative and I've written a lot of that theatre," he said.

"It's quite unusual for me to write something that's uplifting and celebratory. [But] what better time to be doing that?

"A lot of people can't get a ticket to the Olympics. If you can't get a ticket to the Olympics, get a ticket to this!"

Chariots of Fire is at the Hampstead Theatre until 16 June and will then transfer to the Gielgud Theatre in central London.

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