Wednesday 20 February 2013

Chess - Review

Union Theatre, London


Music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Co directed by Christopher Howell and Steven Harris

Sarah Galbraith
The Union Theatre production of  Chess marks a welcome return to London for this 1980s hallmarked show,  dreamed up and written by Tim Rice (who endorses this revival) with musical life breathed into it by the ABBA men, Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus.  Set against a frosty Cold War backdrop, the politics of the piece now seem as dated as the 1956 Hungarian collapse was to the show's creators, yet as well as proving to be a complicated history lesson with a plot line that holds more twists than a Le Carre novel, Chess was always an exciting piece of theatre with some hauntingly passionate melodies.

If all had gone to plan for this show  it would be garnering five stars, simply because when it's good, it's bloody brilliant. The ensemble voice work in particular is inspiring and beautifully co-ordinated. When the evening is not at its five star best though, it smacks of mediocrity. Craig Rhys Barlow's Arbiter could act but barely sustain a note, whilst Nadim Naaman as the Soviet champion Anatoly Sergievsky, disappointed too. Granted, his is a tough role to play requiring a combination of majestic presence and cold Russian inscrutability, but Naaman fails to get the mix right. Anthem, arguably one of the best act one closers ever, should leave one rushing for the bar desperate for a drink to calm the nerves that ought to have been reduced to quivers of emotion. Not so in this version, but with a month or so left on the run it should still be possible for the actor to step up through the gears in this song, as its a number that demands to be one of the musical’s high spots.  As the American player Frederick Trumper, Tim Oxbrow also has a torrid first half. Notwithstanding his electric acting, his voice initially just doesn’t match the role. To Oxbrow’s credit he redeems himself after the break, warming up with a fun One Night In Bangkok and giving a truly blistering rendition of Pity The Child.

So, what was outstanding about this show? Two words - Sarah Galbraith. This talented Jersey Girl has settled in London and our gain is the Garden State's loss. As Florence Vassy, a Hungarian child √©migr√© from 1956, her character is complex and through the course of the show she is destined to love both of the opposing chess masters. Galbraith never falters, going on to perfectly capture the emotional fragility of her character’s torment in the final act at the uncertainty that surrounds the fate of her father. The actress' poise is perfect and her voice has the most measured yet proportionate strength to be found off West End. The cast are not mic’d for this show, yet Galbraith’s power combined with her impeccable diction (is she really an American?) seemed to have an amplification of her own.  Her Heaven Help My Heart was magnificent whilst her Nobody’s Side bore an exquisite delicacy. Natasha J Barnes who plays Svetlana Sergievskaya, Anatoly’s betrayed wife, is also blessed with a wonderful tone, most notable in Someone Else’s Story, but in what was actually a beautifully sung duet with Galbraith, the signature melody I Know Him So Well, the American actress’ vocal perfection and power proved almost unfair competition for the Briton and it is Galbraith’s reclamation of Anthem at the show’s conclusion that restores that number’s power and ensures one leaves the theatre with spine still re-assuringly tingling.

Gillian Kirkpatrick is Alexandra Molokova, a nasty KGB stooge that interestingly is usually a man's role. Kirkpatrick’s performance was a masterclass in playing a key supporting character that draws from her recent terrific Beggarwoman in the Chichester Festival Sweeney Todd. Her manipulative malevolence never falters throughout, rising superbly to have the audience in the palm of her hand for her big number, The Soviet Machine. Also consistently excellent is Natalie McQueen’s preening US TV presenter Angela St Angelo, with accent, poise and gleaming teeth perfectly honed for the part. Neil Stewart’s Walter de Courcey, Molokova’s opposite number from the USA is another fine example of a supporting role wonderfully delivered, whilst the brief tap dancing comic interlude of Wayne Rogers and Katie Bradley provides a witty take on the stereotyped British civil servant.

Ben Roger’s lighting, notwithstanding its clever ( if rather noisy) technology could have been better plotted. During act one’s Merano, Natalie McQueen is given to singing some solo lines, centre stage, in virtual darkness and this requires urgent attention.  Sioned Jones does some sterling work with the company’s accents and Simon Lambert directs his 8 piece band with panache, effectively bringing out the richness of the music from a score that was written for a much larger orchestra. Some of the melodies, in particular Chess Game #1, have an ethereal quality that Lambert cleverly extracts from the Swedes’ compositions.

Sasha Regan has produced an entertaining and at times thrilling night out. Whilst any show can be no more than the sum of its components, this production’s strengths dazzle and do outweigh its flaws. See it, to understand the flavour of an era past and the excellence of some wonderful performances and some fabulous tunes.

Runs to March 16th

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