PROVO — “Why do you run?”
That is the persistent question at the heart of Chariots of Fire, the newest offering and United States premiere of the stage adaptation of the iconic 1981 film currently running at BYU’s Pardoe Theatre. Wonderfully and inventively adapted by Mike Bartlett, the play opened in London in 2012 and was “partially inspired” by the London Olympics.
As in the film, the play follows the progress of two British athletes towards their participation in the 1924 Paris Olympics, and in this production, starts with runners in position, and then…that unmistakable Vangelis music. My first thought was, “I never dreamed they would use the music!” But how could they not? The film score is so much a part of the spirit of the movie, and so it is with the stage play. That opening number, the running both actual and choreographed, made my heart swell.
Readers must understand that Chariots of Fire is not a musical. This is a play with music. If you remember the film, it is full of the music of, not only Vangelis, but of Gilbert and Sullivan. The play is similar, with songs from The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance, and more weaved delightfully throughout. (However, on opening night the music was a little rocky.) Comparisons will and should be made to the film since the author, lifted most of the stage script directly from Colin Welland’s film script, which is certainly not a weakness but a strength. If there is any drawback in this adaptation’s structure it is that, by it’s very nature, cinematic, with too many characters (costumer Dennis Wright mentioned 24 actors playing 115 roles) and too many abbreviated scenes jumping around from location to location. A danger in this, on stage, is the obvious audience confusion, but also something deeper: a lack of emotional connection. With so many characters and scenes vying for attention and stage time, the main characters and their relationships inevitably suffer. But, overall, I was rather amazed at how well the story worked on stage.
The BYU production has a spartan designed by Doug Ellis—that is if you can call a running track laid through the center of the theatre “spartan”—with bleachers on stage, screens hanging above them, and a handful of pictures of the 1924 Olympic games. Throughout the show, projections appear on the screens of letters written to loved ones, and sepia-toned photographs of Cambridge, Scotland, stadiums and more, which give the audience a visual flavor of time and place. Wright’s costumes also added well to the period. Director Tim Threlfall has done a masterful job of staging this piece using the space inventively and expertly. The play looks good and moves well, without an inch of space wasted. I commend Threlfall for his staging and direction add to the strength of the piece.
I must take a moment, now, to spotlight the choreography of Becky Wright Phillips. Before I saw the show, I wondered how the creative staff were going to stage the races. But I didn’t expect what I saw: the actors ran, (oh yes, how they ran!) but they also were choreographed in movements and stylistic poses that represented the running. (I don’t want to call it dancing, because even though that may have been what it was, it was, emotionally, much more.) The movement fit the style and the “manliness” of the runners, be they Olympians, Londoners or Scots. It was just well done.
Special notice must be taken of Alex Diaz, who plays Harold Abrahams, and Peter Reid Lambert, who plays “The Flying Scotsman,” Eric Liddell. The weight of the play rests on the shoulders of these young men, and they are well up to the heavy lifting. Harold Abrahams’s search to answer, “Why do you run?” is the engine that propels the story forward. A Jew in England and Cambridge, Abrahams is running not only to win—as he tells everyone—but to prove something to himself and authority figures. Diaz is a talented and nimble actor with good instincts. In a scene in act two he comforts a comrade who has fallen during his race and lost. “You are my most complete man,” Abrahams tells his friend. “Kind, compassionate, brave and content.” These are some of the lovely lines delivered by Diaz with equaled kindness, compassion, bravery and contentment. When Liddell is told that his first “heat” in the Olympics is on a Sunday, his devastation is obvious. He wants to run the heat, but not at so great a price as betraying his God. As Liddell is surrounded by a handful of Lords, including the Price of Wales, pressuring him to put aside his beliefs “for king and country,” Lambert stands his ground with gentle courage: “God made countries. God makes Kings, and the rules by which they govern, and those rules state that the Sabbath is His.” These are words of which Lambert delivers with grace and strength.
Additionally, I applaud Soren Barker (who played a convincing Lord Birkenhead), Meg Flinders, Joseph Swain, Derek Johnson, Chris Rollins, and Stacy Wilk. Granted, all these talented actors are young and sometimes young actors have a tendency to hurry through their scenes, sometime mistaking that for pacing. Occasionally it seemed that the cast did not quite understanding the import of a line or a phrase, not letting a moment land. But that understanding will come to them with time and life and experience. Another type of criticism of the show is technical and perhaps conceptual: the mics were problematic and I wish the stage crew could have been dressed in period costumes. Both issues shattered the world the director was trying to create.
One conceptual issue involved the onstage bleachers that were filled with audience members. I’m not convinced that concept worked becausea world is being created on stage and the audience wants to to be carried away by that world. But surrounding this wonderful place were people from 2017, so I find myself slipping in and out of the world of 1920’s Europe, and I didn’t want to. Yet at the same time, I liked having those bleachers full of people. It is a theatrical conundrum, and I feel ambivalent about Threlfall’s decision.
When all is said and done, this production Chariots of Fire worthy of readers’ time. “Why do you run?” We run because we love it. We run because we have to. We run for the glory. We run to win. But make no mistake, whether is a literal question or existential, each one of us in this life will have to answer the question for ourselves.