I love Chess. It’s the concept album I’ve played the most, and I think it has one of the strongest scores in musical theatre.
With music by Bjorn and Benny from ABBA, and lyrics from Tim Rice, it started life in 1984 as a recording, before progressing to the West End stage in 1986. It ran for four years before going on tour within the UK, and there was also a Broadway production and others, including one in Sweden, which is available on DVD. A concert version played at the Royal Albert Hall in 2008, also recorded for DVD, and a high camp tour ran in 2010.
Now the musical returns to London for the first time in nearly thirty years, and in this staging relies heavily on the structure of the original concept album, with the addition of Someone Else’s Story from the Broadway production, The Soviet Machine from the London production, and He is a Man, He is a Child from the Swedish production.
Cast as originally announced: Murray Head, Cassidy Janson, Alexandra Burke, Phillip Browne (Molotov), Michael Ball; with Tim Rice, Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, and director Laurence Connor. Photo credit: Frederic Aranda.
There was a bit of off-stage drama before rehearsals got going for the new production, with original London cast member Murray Head, cast as The Arbiter at the age of 72, having to leave for personal reasons. I admit he was a major draw for me when booking, so I was a little sad to hear of his withdrawal, but if you want to see him at the height of his powers, you can find the promo videos of Pity the Child and One Night in Bangkok and the Swedish TV broadcast of the truncated Chess in Concert online.
The story of Chess is both simple (a game of chess between an American and a Russian, West vs East, freedom vs oppression) and complex (the American’s partner and second, Florence, a Hungarian by birth, has a father who disappeared during Soviet occupation; the Russian has a wife, Svetlana, and child back home but walks away from them for the love of the game and asylum in England).
Tim Howar and Michael Ball. Photo credit: Brinkoff-Moegenburg.
At the time of the concept and first production, the Iron Curtain was still a reality, and the ‘Red menace’ was still a very real threat to the freedoms of the West. The West, represented by the brash USA, was seen as materialistic and superficial, while the East was viewed as repressive, inflexible, and unemotional. When Chess was first conceived, it was a reflection of its times, mixing camp and overblown numbers with political commentary. It was also a hit album, with at least two huge chart hits (I Know Him So Well and One Night in Bangkok).
This production casts widely – the Russian (Anatoly) is played by musical veteran Michael Ball, a tad too old for the part but on good form in both acting and singing terms, sporting glasses and an unruffled expression, even when falling in love with Florence. She is played by Cassidy Janson – we saw her in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical where she impressed with her high octane energy and vulnerablity, qualities which serve her well as Florence, who moves from one chess-playing lover to another and ends up believing “stories like ours / have happy endings”.
The American (Freddie) is Mike and the Mechanics lead singer Tim Howar. I wasn’t familiar with him but he puts across the obnoxious front of the man who is a hurt little child inside, and he has a powerful set of pipes which stop the show with Pity the Child (I understand that earlier performances had issues with pacing due to extended applause for this number, but on the performance last Saturday afternoon the lights cut to black directly afterwards, curtailing any audience appreciation.
Svetlana, not usually a major role, is played by pop singer Alexandra Burke, who has a belt of a voice but limited acting skills. At the age of 29 she is far too young for her 55-year-old Anatoly, and her drab – but accurate – Soviet costumes have attracted comment from those who probably seek to see her in sparkles. Aside from one brief scene at the beginning, she does not appear until the end of Act One, when her character is given the song of Someone Else’s Story, which makes much more sense for Florence.
There are several chorus numbers – the opener is The Story of Chess, led by The Arbiter (now played by Cedric Neal, who gives yet another dimension to the complex yet underused role), followed by the tongue in cheek cavorting of Merano. There are video projections throughout the production, but aside from showing a plane arrival during this number, and a sequence of slick merchandising product during the American cheerleading number, they are mainly utilised to show blow-up film of what is going on before us on stage.
I enjoyed the British Embassy number, which is hopelessly dated, but very funny, and the acrobats, strippers, and pole dancers of Bangkok, with fire, masks, and that cheesy rap. The orchestra and ensemble singers and dancers do a fabulous job throughout, required to change focus, nationality, and style as the musical progresses. Everything about this show is huge in scale – everything, that is, except the chess board, which those with long memories may recall was much larger in those early productions.
This is a big, loud, dynamic show which is about as 80s as you can get. For those of us who grew up with it, it is a little corner of musical theatre heaven. For those of you not sure, go if you can. It’s like Marmite, so you may hate it – or you may not. In any case, I would be surprised if a big production is put on in the West End again.
Chess is on a limited engagement at the ENO Coliseum, and closes on the 2nd June 2018. I am visiting again this weekend, and will update this review after that – I felt that despite the greatness of the show, it cannot be fully appreciated from the poor sightlines of the upper levels, and I look forward to reporting back from a more premium seat at my next visit.