London Coliseum – until 2 June 2018
Guest reviewer: Chris Omaweng
You know the storyline is going to be a little difficult to follow if, like me, you’ve never seen Chess before, when there is a two-page synopsis in the show’s programme. There are a lot of us experiencing a full production for the first time, given that this is the first West End revival since the original London production closed in April 1989: the Berlin Wall was still operational at the time. True, there were performances in May 2008 at the Royal Albert Hall, but they were concerts.
While there is often a good reason why a show doesn’t get revived very often (namely, there are better shows to revive than the one being considered), Chess just needs the sort of almost ridiculously high production values that Michael Linnit, Michael Grade and the English National Opera are able to provide.
The projections allow for close-ups of the lead characters, so from any seat in the London Coliseum, it’s easy to get totally immersed and emotionally engaged in proceedings. And it’s not often that a musical’s score gets played in a fully staged production by a 70-strong orchestra.
The projections, however, do occasionally border on overkill. I don’t mean the depiction of the mountains surrounding Merano, Italy, where a chess tournament takes place – I trust it’s not too much of a spoiler to let it be known that some actual chess happens in Chess. I don’t even mean the huge symbols of Thai culture that accompany the well-known musical number ‘One Night in Bangkok’ (truly a sight to behold, by the way). It’s the news headlines about the space race and the diplomatic tensions between ‘east’ and ‘west’ that force a Cold War narrative on a board game. The point is well and truly made repeatedly: it’s Freddie Trumper (Tim Howar), an American, playing against Anatoly Sergievsky (Michael Ball), a Russian.
Both leading men are complicated and, frankly, not very likeable characters. The former forces Florence Vassy (Cassidy Janson), Trumper’s presumed lover (previously played by Elaine Paige, for those old enough to remember) to try to smooth over his eccentricities and tactlessness. The latter causes his wife Svetlana (Alexandra Burke) – played by Barbara Dickson back in the day – to sing not one, but two songs of lament, ‘Someone Else’s Story’ and ‘He Is A Man, He Is A Child’. Florence Vassy gets two songs of her own too, ‘Nobody’s Side’ with the ever-discerning line: “Never be the first to believe/Never be the last to deceive”, and ‘Heaven Help My Heart’, a heartfelt soliloquy.
Nobody is miscast amongst the leads, whose singing voices are in fine, fine form. Phillip Browne as Molokov has a glorious bass-baritone, while Cedric Neal’s Arbiter, whenever his role of – well, arbitrating, requires a song, is simply brilliant in taking a confident, no-nonsense approach. Michael Ball’s Anatoly brings the house down with ‘Anthem’, Tim Howar’s Freddie does the same later on with ‘Pity the Child’, and perhaps the show’s most famous song, ‘I Know Him So Well’, is given a poignant and dynamic rendering by Cassidy Janson and Alexandra Burke, stamping their own authority on the number. It was wonderful to see and hear these songs, popular at musical theatre themed concerts (and, I’m told, at musical auditions), in their narrative context.
The sharp choreography (Stephen Mear) suits the show like a custom-made glove throughout. Two moments stand out. Firstly, ‘Embassy Lament’ was particularly amusing in its portrayal of British protocols and doing everything by the book (Anatoly Sergievsky defects from the USSR at one point and seeks asylum in England). Secondly, the breakdancing and spirited moves in ‘Soviet Machine’ make for a magnificent moment of escapism from the solemnity of most of the rest of the show.
The lyrical clarity is extraordinary in such a large theatre, and with lyrics that are sometimes delivered so quickly the verses border on being rapped. There’s no denying that the plot could, despite changes in this version, be better structured. But this is a show best enjoyed by sitting back and letting the music and staging blow you away. Overall, it’s a bold and confident production well worth seeing.