Chariots of Fire has opened in London, Ontario. It’s a stage version of the early 1980s Academy Award winning film of the same name. The original stage adaptation had its premiere in London, England in 2012, and now, the Grand Theatre is the first to produce it in North America. Those who know the movie remember the film is set during the 1924 Olympics, with the English and Scots competitors preparing and then traveling to France for the Games.
It’s impossible to communicate in words the vast, innovative, and moving spectacle that is the Grand’s version of Chariots of Fire. The building itself is the crown jewel of Canadian theatres, a gorgeous structure opened in 1901. But this time, director Dennis Garnhum and designer Bretta Gerecke have altered the gigantic space to envelop the audience, as if we all sit inside a giant music box, watching all manner of enchantment float about us. Racing tracks are installed so that the athletics can run about and through the audience seated in the orchestra, balcony, and sports bleachers installed on the stage. A vast reflective surface hangs high above the stage so that those facing it can also see action taking place in the balcony. The audience isn’t merely watching a play. The audience is in it.
The overall experience is one of time-travel. We’re inside of a theatre that easily dates back to the Victorian period and the 1924 Olympics, but it is being used with a technology and theatricality that clearly belongs to today.
The drama of Chariots of Fire hinges on ethical conflicts that arise over the marathon races at the 1924 Olympics. One man from Scotland, Eric Liddell (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) runs for God, refusing to violate his faith by running on the Sabbath. Another, Harold Abrahams (Harry Judge), tarnishes the “gentlemanly” norms of his school by hiring a professional sports trainer to coach him for an amateur competition. Abrahams is clearly obsessed with “winning” at the Olympics, a rather vulgar “modern” notion, but what drives him is never clear to himself, or others.
Such conflicts appear slight by today’s standards, hardly worth calling for the discreet intervention of the British government, as they do in the drama. After all, most today don’t see anything wrong with running on a Sunday, and it’s quite normal for an amateur to hire a professional coach. One must truly evoke a past era of Victorian class, morality, manners, and social norms to hold our interest. Director Dennis Garnhum seems to realize this, and drives his full cast and crew to pull us headlong into another time.
Across the years, I’ve watched many directors, acclaimed for their flash and circus tricks, who cleverly sidestep depth or meaning. Dennis Garnhum is more serious, finding ways to illustrate the text, enhancing in large and small ways, what the play is actually about. In Chariots of Fire, you can feel him thinking about each scene, deciding how to make its points in the most cogent fashion. As he demonstrated in his holiday show, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Garnhum is a special artist. More than a director, he is an alchemist, using all the elements of the stage to conjure a heightened sense of amazement and expectancy.
There are special delights in each performance of the large cast, but the real “star” of the show is the fact that such a large group works seamlessly as one, like clockwork, and each actor has a special moment. There is also something so wonderful about the Grand, getting to see young actors like Josh Buchwald, Liam McKeiver, Leah Gliddon, and Connor Overton shine in a great and unique production.
One of the appealing qualities of Chariots of Fire is that it recalls a time when people conducted themselves in a more courteous and civil manner. But Chariots of Fire is not simply a nostalgic romp about a bygone era. Today, we view the Victorian period as one of sexual repression and rigid social conformity. To us, those people appear “quaint”. But the epoch was also a time of genuine ideals, politeness, of refined and respectful behavior. Inherent in this production is a comparison of two worlds. We get to contrast the times of “ladies and gentlemen” when viewed from the Age of Trump.
I recommend Chariots of Fire for everyone, especially those who work in theatre. Certainly every director and producer should see it, as well as actors and designers. For all those who enjoy theatre of the high standards of the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, or Broadway, I suggest you dash to the Grand in London, Ontario.
Full Cast and Production Team:
I’d like to mention that the title sponsor for “Chariots of Fire”/ Grand Theatre production is 3M. This type of corporate commitment to the arts is vital and a great gift to any community.
All photos: Christina Kuefner