March 2, 2011
Reviewed for The Public Reviews
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this revival tour of Chess. Widely known for the breakaway pop duet I Know Him So Well and being co-written by the boys from ABBA, I knew from a brilliant amateur production I’d seen in my teens that there was a lot more to this rock-opera than board games.
Set amidst the icy tensions of the Cold War, the show focuses on the 1979 world chess championship, where the USA’s egomaniac champion Freddie Trumper must defend his title against the USSR’s Anatoly Sergievsky. This evolves into a passionate love triangle over Freddie’s assistant and lover, Florence Vassy, as the two men are pitted against each other by their nations and the media, reflecting the politics of the time.
This production, promoted heavily as the brainchild of Strictly’s Craig Revel-Horwood, is clearly on crystal meth and styled by Lady Gaga, a whirlwind of pop-culture elements that really shouldn’t work – but it does. The show-stealing ensemble are dressed as flamboyant, Westwood-esque chess pieces, with black-bobbed, black lipped pawns in military dress. Christopher Woods’ incredible designs animate the politics of the chessboard, each piece vivid and charismatic in its own right.
One of the main triumphs of this staging is that 25 of the 30-strong cast play instruments on stage (orchestrated by Tony-winner Sarah Travis), deftly built around their witty and macabre choreography and flawless vocals. The three principals, although sometimes obscured by the intensity of the chorus, are equally fantastic in their rockstar vocals and stage presence. James Fox is the standout performer, with just the right amount of American smarm and rage, and owns the stage in One Night in Bangkok and even the somewhat whiny Pity the Child. His range seems endless and his vocals are constantly at full-throttle.
More light and shade is provided by Shona White in the Elaine Paige-originated role of Florence; a fairly one-dimensional character with undoubtedly the best songs in the show. White’s powerful voice and feisty yet fragile character earned her the biggest applause of the night. Daniel Koek as the introspective, forceful Anatoly provides a very different but complimentary sound with his rich tenor, although in some of his more wordy songs the meaning was lost to amped-up sound and too much ensemble backing.
Slick support is provided by David Erik as the devilish, trumpet-playing Arbiter, clad in a full-length leather coat, and Steve Varnom as the seedy Molokov. Poppy Tierney is graceful and steely as Anatoly’s wronged wife Svetlana, but the material doesn’t offer much of an insight into her character. The choreography, under scrutiny due to its star creator, is frenetic and varied, dipping into classical as well as hardcore gay-club territory. Though the dance numbers were undeniably entertaining, I would still say the vocals were the best part, making me long for a touring cast soundtrack.
Chess had a meagre three-year West End run in the 80s, and quickly flopped on Broadway. Not only does it demand of its audience a basic understanding of Cold War politics, but Tim Rice’s sublime lyrics are fast-paced and intellectual – this is a musical which requires concentration. Contrastingly, its standout numbers (bar the rousing Anthem at the end of Act I) are recognisably-ABBA pop ballads, with some haunting music-box waltzes and rock numbers to combat the cheese factor. It is a challenging show, but a thoroughly enjoyable one if you are open to the humour and genius within. Entertaining touches such as ‘broadcasts’ by the characters into cameras hidden in the onstage instruments and projected on to the minimalist scenery, really add flavour.
This dark story of media hype, global superpowers and on a smaller scale, one woman’s emotional survival, is still compelling and thought-provoking stuff more than two decades after its creation. Highly recommended for Rice fans, although ABBA’s may be in for a shock.
Runs until 5th March in Bristol.
Tour continues to Woking, Torquay, Dublin, High Wycombe and Glasgow – dates here.