It’s been over thirty years since Chess The Musical, the cold war era musical of love and politics set to the backdrop of an international chess tournament, was staged in London. It’s already hit the headlines, as leading man, Tim Howar had to leave the theatre during the first performance to be with his wife who had gone in to labour, and understudy Cellen Chugg Jones stepped in to save the day.
For those unfamiliar with the musical, it may take a little time to grasp the plot, which has been rewritten many times over the years. Anatoly Sergievsky is up against the American ‘bad boy’ of chess, Freddie Trumper at the World Chess Federation Championship in Merano, Italy. After the match Sergievsky defects, abandoning not only Russia, but his son, and wife Svetlana, while striking up a relationship with Trumpers second, Florence.
It’s easy to see why some people could be put off by the dominance of the game, the very first song is an explanation of the origin of chess, and yes there are a couple of games actually played on stage. Yet, director Laurence Connor, manages to turn these more sedate moments into something enjoyable.
Certainly, the game of chess is at the heart of this musical, but it stands for much more, and this revival is the very definition of timely. Many comparisons can be made between politics and the game; each move made can be seen by all, but the strategy is hidden, and the endgame could be anybody’s. This could all have turned out a little heavy-handed, but Tim Rice’s tight lyrics ensure an equal balance between story and context.
The production is billed as being semi-staged, which seems a huge disservice to set and video designers, Matt Kinley and Terry Scruby, for the hypermodern staging is just one of the most appealing features of this revival of Chess The Musical.
The massive stage of the London Coliseum is transformed into a chess board spilling out past the proscenium arch, each square part of a giant live video screen, which at times feels more like a rock concert. The orchestra become the major piece of the production, sitting pride of place and raised above the stage, delivering that classically beautiful score from ABBA’s Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus.
The lead cast give excellent performances, Michael Ball is, of course, superb in the role of Anatoly, with his performance of ‘Anthem’ giving the end of Act One true gravitas. Tim Howar is equally as impressive in the role of Trumper, with his rendition of ‘Pity The Child’ being universally praised.
As, perhaps the best-known number, you could feel the expectation from the audience as Cassidy Janson and Alexandra Burke approached ‘I Know Him So Well’, the result did not disappoint and both Janson and Burke demonstrated exceptional understanding of their characters throughout.
Not only does this revival of Chess The Musical manage to create the cold war feeling through the use of innovative staging and technology, it breathes new life in to the score that many of us have grown to love, without ever having the opportunity to see it in production. Musicals have often sought unusual subjects for inspiration, and a two-person strategy game certainly fits that bill, but this gambit has definitely paid off, and while this could well be described as the marmite of musicals, the staging and performance aspect help tip it in the right direction.