Wednesday 2 May 2018

Chess - Review

Coliseum, London


Music by Benny Andersson & Björn Ulvaeus
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Richard Nelson
Directed by Laurence Connor

Tim Howar and Michael Ball

Chess, born out of the collaboration of Tim Rice’s wit and the musical genius of ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson has long been regarded as a fusion of 1980s culture, kitsch and cliché – and for the last 30 odd years, London’s producers have shied away from reviving a show that once dominated the West End.

But for one month only and backed by a budget that itself reflects a fusion of subsidy and commerce, producers Michael Grade, Michael Linnit and the ENO have assembled a cornucopia of talent and technology, that blasts the show into the 21st century.

The plot revolves around the once-glamorous world of the international chess circuit and, in a metaphor that for so much of the last 70 years was true to life, reflects the conflict between the USA and (what was) the USSR, or Russia in more modern parlance. Michael Ball is Anatoly the Russian Grand Master. Opposite him, Tim Howar is Freddie Trumper his American counterpart, while in the wings are Cassidy Janson’s Florence (Trumper’s second) and Alexandra Burke who plays Anatoly’s wife Svetlana.

As the tale unfolds, classic East v West tropes are laid bare – though from a political perspective the programme notes comment on the production’s timeliness, with today’s relations between the West and Russia turning cold again. Some may argue that they were never really warm, but it nonetheless remains a breath of fresh air from London’s theatrical community to see that in 2018 it is still Russia, rather than the USA’s current administration, that poses a more significant threat.

Rice’s original story boils the politics down to a neat (if implausible) romance that develops between Anatoly and Florence. Along the way there are tantrums from the American, a defection, and in Michael Ball’s rendition of Anthem, surely up there as one of the best Act One closing numbers ever, a spine-tingling reminder of the beauty and passion that can truly be evoked by a love for one’s country. 

There’s actually so much more to this musical theatre extravaganza. Lavishly deployed projections and digital imagery serve not only as backdrops – but also to broadcast much of the musical’s highlights to the massive, ingenious displays. The multi-screen styling is multi-purposed, for not only do the (on-stage) video cameras serve to highlight the televised nature of the much of the narrative, they also enable those in the Coliseum’s cheap seats (correction, there are no cheap seats in the Coliseum) to have a decent view of the action.

Some of the show’s songs are among the finest in the modern canon. The second half kicks off with Howar’s One Night In Bangkok, here transformed into a festival of circus skills from the ensemble along with stunning video work from Terry Scruby. The musical highlight of the show’s impending endgame is the powerfully poignant ballad I Know Him So Well, sung by Florence and Svetlana. The projected live video of Cassidy and Burke hints at a wonderful throwback to the BBC’s Top Of The Pops – though younger readers may rather conclude that this show is emphatically putting the X-Factor into musical theatre.

Howar has a massive number late on with Pity The Child, an excoriating study of childhood neglect. Done to perfection, this song should make hairs stand on end – Howar is good, for sure, but he needs to dig a little deeper. 

Credit though to Lewis Osborne on guitar. It cannot be that often that the (80 strong!) ENO Orchestra get to deliver such a rock-heavy score and they do it here, under John Rigby’s baton, magnificently. Osborne’s riffs in Pity The Child are sensational.

Amidst the talent and technology, there’s time for some tongue in cheek too, with an Alpine-clad musician knocking out Thank You For The Music on the accordion, as a backdrop to one of the mountain-top scenes.

Under Stephen Mear's visionary choreography, the dance is spectacular. Mear moulding his company into routines that are imaginative and provocative. A nod to Fosse in the bowler-hatted, umbrella wielding (oh-so British) Embassy Lament is a touch of wonderful flair.

If you can get (or afford) a ticket, go and see this show, if only because the score is unlikely to be played quite so sumptuously ever again. The whole production makes for an evening of stunning musical theatre.

Runs until 2nd June
Photo credit: Brinkhoff Mögenburg

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