Review – Chariots of Fire – Hampstead Theater

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I have a real thing for new writing. This, however, doesn’t extend to new plays that are adaptations of movies. But when pcchan1981 invited me to catch Chariots of Fire at the Hampstead Theater, I thought, why not? The script is by Mike Bartlett, and I think he’s pretty decent. But I became a bit worried when a West End transfer was announced before the show’s opening. What made them so sure of the show’s success? Did this have … something to do with the Olympics? Hmmm.

Three months later it was finally time for the show. I had seen the movie but, as I saw it back when it was new most of the plot details had long ago slid from my brain. I remembered that one of the characters was Jewish, and that the plot had something to do with running in the Olympics. But everything else was pretty much gone. To me, it meant I was approaching the show in a close to ideal fashion, as, other than being pretty sure of the ending, I had few preconceptions about what was going to happen and no expectation of a performance “like the guy in the film.” (And thank God I hadn’t read the Hampstead website, which describes the show as “the theatrical event of our Olympic year.” Those claims inevitably lead to disappointment. Can people just say, “We think our show is good, we do hope you’ll like it?”)

The inside of the theater had been set up like a race track, with a circular running level separating the stalls seats from the balcony and upper balcony area, and a rotating area in the middle that could either just have the edge rotating or the whole thing going at once. This was obviously very useful for a play in which a lot of action centers on racing, and they made good use of it, not just running on the stationary track but cutting across the middle to do figure eights; they also raced on the small rotating edge of the middle section. Unsurprising, with all of this running, the cast of this show was looking awfully fit; I suspect some folks might find it worth seeing for that alone.

This was not enough for me. I was looking for drama and personal evolution: I got one note characters and lots of running. Real drama came during the British Olympics Committee grilling scene, when they try to force someone to run against their religious beliefs; but nothing else really engaged me at that level. I found joy when one of the runners practiced hurdles with glasses of fine champagne balanced on the posts; I was gleeful at the frequent use of Gilbert and Sullivan (did Cambridge students really all do Am Dram?). Yet I cared for nobody on stage, because they didn’t seem real, not a one of them; they were actors portraying actors portraying some writer’s version of real people as made interesting enough to film. Just what was I supposed to care about?

As I was struggling to keep engaged during the second act, the British team made it to France for the Olympics, and suddenly it was five rings projected on the floor and the Olympic flag on the wall. In my mind, the IOC licensing committee (LOCOG?) suddenly swooped in and confiscated all of the props and declared the play closed as they hadn’t received official permission to use their copyrighted stuff (at exorbitant fees). But then I realized … the whole reason for this play’s existence is to ride on those Olympic coattails, and take advantage of the Olympics as a marketing phenomenon. It was never a play aimed at me, a hardcore theater fan who sees an average of three shows a week. Taking advantage of Olympics fever is why this play was written, why it is transferring, and why it uses the horribly, gratingly inappropriate Vangelis music despite the fact it says THIS WAS WRITTEN IN 1981 and ruins the feeling of the early 20s they otherwise have tried so hard to create on stage. This play was written to make a buck, not to be a good show.

If you have to, you can probably make it through this play. But I promise you, after this summer is over this thing will never see the light of a serious stage again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on May 21st, 2012. It continues at the Hampstead until June 16th, and if you’re going to see it do it before it transfers. There are plenty of seats available still and it will cost you much more like what it is worth rather than what they are going to want you to play.)

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