A Gold-Medal Effort on an Olympic-Sized Production that Ends in a Podium Finish
Chariots of Fire is production at an Olympian level. It may be a play about gold medals, but it’s one that feels like it’s reaching for a brass ring. And while it may not be a record-setting performance, it is one that crosses the finish line with its arms upraised in victory.
In many ways, this season at The Grand Theatre feels like it has been building up to this production. This year has been about bigger, bolder, and louder. Each show has seen efforts to increase interactivity and present content in a new way.
And Chariots of Fire brings everything. It’s over-the-top in a way that sometimes works and sometimes seems superfluous. For a play about a historic Olympic competition, Chariots is presented like a modern Olympic event—loud, at times garish, in your face, and throwing everything it can to keep you riveted to the action.
Rotating stage? Check. Stage that extends out into (and through) the audience? Check. Audience members seated on the stage for the duration? Check. Giant marquee letters? Light work? Streamers exploding from the rafters? Check, check, and check.
At the heart of it is the story of two runners: Harry Judge as Harold Abrahams and Wade Bogert-O’Brien as Eric Liddell. The two are driven to run for completely different reasons: Liddell uses running as a weapon for his Christian faith; Abrahams uses it as a weapon against the societal challenges brought about by his Jewish upbringing. Liddell runs for God’s glory; Judge runs for personal vindication. Kyle Gatehouse as Andy is also a highlight, bringing appropriate pomposity with a flair of comedy to the production.
The rest of the cast? They get lost in the action. Characters are shuttled in and out, given brief bursts of prominence, only to be discarded for long periods of time. They are there solely to move the plot forward and are presented with little emotional depth. The vast majority of the performers were wonderful in their roles, they just didn’t get a lot to work with. Only one character, in the second act, played more as a caricature—blustering and spouting lines almost unintelligibly—to the detriment of the scene. Otherwise, the remainder of the cast weaved in and out of the primary actors’ lives in a way that was effectively complementary.
With a two-hour and 20 minute running time, there’s a lot of content in this production that is included to move the story along, but tends to get sacrificed at the altar of time, while other segments tended to drag. The introduction of Eric in the first act is presented at a much more sluggish pace, whereas, at other points, significant segments like the introductions of key cast members, romantic motivations, conflict with religious ideals, anti-Semitism, and plot resolutions check in with almost savage economy of time. A little balance or a culling of some content may have allowed the production a bit more room to breathe.
Chariots of Fire is an ambitious production, as mentioned. It’s big and it’s bold. There are a lot of items that stand out as cool, unique, and different. But some have greater staying power than others.
The track, for example, was an amazing extension of the stage into the audience. It allowed for more flow during the race. However, it’s clear that the staging was made with the orchestra seating in mind. Balcony-level seating meant that you could lose track of the action. Dialogue would come from off-stage, but it was unclear from where. It was only when the actors returned to the sightline that you could see where—and from whom—the dialogue was coming. There is a large mirror that’s designed to give you a feel of the action, but unfortunately, the view was a little blurry, so a “feel” is all you really got.
The presence of audience members on stage was also, initially, an intriguing addition to the production. In fact, it represented one of the most-hyped parts of the play, as this has been promoted as a feature ever since the production was announced. However, in the end, despite its constant presence, it was underused—and awkward.
There were a couple of scenes where the stage audience (regular, paying patrons) were given banners to hold or flags to wave, and they were integrated into the action. That made sense. But those limited moments were overwhelmed by the remainder of the production where they didn’t make sense to be on stage: why are there 37 people in Eric’s living room? Why are runners racing through and around spectators? Who are these 37 people during a private audience with the king? The presence of three dozen people—who, for the most part, sat rigidly upright—was great in concept, but proved less than ideal in execution.
Other elements, though, did work. The lighting was fantastic. There was one particular scene where Abrahams and his coach Sam Mussabini, played by Anand Rajaram, are watching old film of previous Olympians and the flickering blue lighting was masterful. The garishly loud marquee lights on the Olympic rings helped to highlight the grandeur and importance of the event, and those rings were cleverly repurposed as portholes at one point. The musical elements were also very strong, especially for fans of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas.
But for all the grandeur, for all the noise, for all the flash and showiness, some of the strongest moments were the play’s quietest. One brief moment, as Eric prepares to run a race he’s never trained for, sees him alone in the spotlight, quickly bringing his hands together to his chin as if in prayer, and that moment carries so much more weight than much of the spectacle. The conversations, the soliloquies, the moments where the characters have a chance to breathe and be those characters—that’s what truly catapults Chariots to the finish line.
Chariots has something for everyone, mainly because it’s got everything in it. If you’re a fan of loud and boisterous productions—a pseudo-Broadway presentation, if you will—then you’ll love Chariots. But there’s enough heart and soul, especially courtesy of the performances of its two leads, to connect the audience to the production in a much more compelling way: a deeper appreciation that sometimes threatens to be overwhelmed by the over-the-top grandeur of the production. But it’s there. And it’s what makes Chariots so enjoyable.
It may not be a production that earns an Olympic record, but it comfortably crosses the finish line and finds itself on the podium.