“The stadium is now open.” The pre-performance announcement rightly suggests that Hampstead Theater’s auditorium has been specifically reconfigured to stage its adaptation of “Chariots of Fire,” the Oscar-winning movie about Brits at the 1924 Olympics. The combination of designer Miriam Buether’s vision and the equally bold animation of the runners by choreographer Scott Ambler bring immediacy and authenticity to the production. What they and helmer Edward Hall cannot do is animate Mike Bartlett’s clunky script, which only rarely escapes its cinematic origins.
As the producers of “Starlight Express” discovered, racing cast members around the audience creates a visceral thrill, and here, the well-drilled actors thunder around and through the auditorium. Buether adds a central, double-turntable stage that allows actors and scenes to be wheeled on and off with ease and rapidity. That’s essential, since the script cleaves dangerously close to the movie’s succession of short scenes in multiple locations.
The story remains the same. James McArdle plays Harold Abrahams, who arrives at the forbiddingly posh Cambridge U. of the early 1920s determined to run for his country even though his country harbors, at best, mixed feelings about the fact that he is Jewish. He is pitted against the Scottish Eric Liddell (a quietly forthright Jack Lowden) who is not only the fastest runner in Britain but a devout Christian.
With the play illustrating their two separate narrative strands, with their own background and tensions, and taking place across several years, there’s no room for developing anyone but the two main characters. Scenes are bedeviled by clunky information overload, and it’s not just the establishment of character that is dully schematic. Near the beginning, when Abrahams arrives in Cambridge in 1920, he and a chum are greeted by two bandaged characters with missing limbs and/or eyesight asking for cash. Pause. “That could have been us,” observes Abrahams, indicating that these are the wounded from the just-finished WWI. What could be easily established in a shot feels seriously cumbersome onstage.
Aside from the impressive physical sequences, the lengthy, pre-Olympics first act lacks in tension. It presents scenes of Cambridge anti-Semitism and Liddell’s disagreement with his sister (a typically thin female role), who believes his running is selfish, but the scenes are so swift that everything feels stated rather than explored.
The Paris-set second half is better written, but even here, as both runners face up to private demons, the adherence to the movie structure doesn’t help. Liddell’s crisis has dramatic life because it’s stageable: He threatens to pull out of the 100 meters as the heat is to be run on a Sunday. The consequent scenes of blackmailing by British bigwigs is sharply done. But despite McArdle’s vigorous, impressively steely performance as Abrahams, his character’s equivalent struggle with his estranged father never achieves liftoff because the latter is never seen.
Looking ideally like lean, 1920s runners rather than overly buff actors, the acting company is collectively convincing as they run and, indeed, the cast members divertingly nip in and out of multiple characters — sometimes playing instruments and singing Gilbert and Sullivan numbers. They also go a long way toward papering over the production’s cracks. But despite the goodwill they generate, the impressive novelty of the staging begins to wear off, and you start question why a show about determination and sweat is almost compulsively neat and clean.
The fact that the show seems to end at least four times points to a lack of editorial rigor and directorial control. Positive local reviews should sell the show out in its home venue, but as for its already locked-in West End transfer with an $86 top ticket, the production may struggle to win first place in theatergoers’ hearts.