Anyone visiting the Oxford City Athletic Club out in Horspath could be forgiven for thinking there's a big race coming up, judging by the sheer number of competitors.

In fact, the numbers have been bumped up by Oxford Theatre Guild members, training for their upcoming part in Chariots Of Fire.

They need to be quick on their feet when the production opens in Oxford next week, especially as the Oxford Playhouse auditorium is being turned into a running track, while offering on-stage seating for audience members who want to get up and close with the action.

Indeed, as part of the preparations for the production, OTG recreated the scene from the iconic 1982 Oscar winning movie, where Harold and Lord Andy (played by Nigel Havers in the film) race round Trinity College, Cambridge.

But instead of shipping everyone east, OTG used Oxford’s very own Trinity College, instead to restage the seismic race.

Oxford Mail:

Staging the athletics has thus involved bringing together skills from a range of theatrical and non-theatrical disciplines, as well as honing their physical theatre techniques in the rehearsal room.

The ambition needed to bring this story to life on stage has thus been challenging and thrilling for director Simon Taverner.

Bringing together a talented cast, dedicated crew and a host of new collaborators onto the hallowed stage, many of whom have day jobs and family life to balance, is a big commitment, by any stretch of the imagination.

“Bringing together the talents of our 27 cast members and our dedicated backstage teams has been several months of hard but very rewarding work,” he says.

“It is amateur theatre-making in the truest sense of the word – we are all doing it for the love of making great theatre.”

"Our stage adaption is fast-paced – almost breathless at times – but it lands an emotional punch that is intensely moving. It has been a joy for me, as a director, to work with such a high quality script.

So what of those who sneer at amateur theatre? “OTG has always aspired to be professional in its outlook, and as such attracts a lot of new and gifted members every year.

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"We conduct extensive open auditions to fill the parts and considering we have 150 members, have a wonderful bank of talent to choose from.

"OTG came into existence in 1955 and since then has performed around 60 shows at the Oxford Playhouse. We hope our reputation speaks for itself, without ever resting on our laurels,” he said thoughtfully.

So what made Simon choose this piece in particular? “I remember the success of Chariots of Fire at the 1982 Oscars vividly: Colin Welland’s rallying cry of ‘The British are coming’ is an iconic moment in our cultural history,” he smiles.

“Fast forward to 2012 and London is playing host to the Olympics. Chariots of Fire is celebrated in the Opening Ceremony and the stage version opens at the Hampstead Theatre and later at the Gielgud in the West End.”

Simon saw the Gielgud version and was blown away by the sheer energy and theatrical vitality of the production, as well as the enduring power of the story of Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell.

“Two extraordinary men. Two incredible athletes. One amazing story.”

Of course, as always happens when history is translated into film (and theatre), the events are tweaked, the characters subtly altered and things are invented – in order to make a more satisfying piece of drama.

“Working on the production, we have discovered just how far apart the history of Liddell, Abrahams and the 1924 Olympics, and the history as depicted on stage and screen, actually are.

“Does it matter? Yes – to the historians. As theatre and cinema goers, it is the story that matters. And it is an amazing story.”

“Either way, Chariots of Fire will always be an iconic British movie. But we hope that you share our belief that it should also be seen as an iconic British play. Theatre and athletics coming together in a unique fusion to tell the story of the 1924 Olympics and two men who entered the history books.

“We are also dedicating the production to Sir Roger Bannister – a great athlete, an Oxford legend and a huge supporter of Oxford Playhouse.

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“He passed away a year ago – and we will be running to celebrate his life and achievements as well as those whose stories are featured in the play.”

I’m sure both Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams would agree.

Chariots Of Fire, Oxford Playhouse. March 12-16

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