I stumbled across this cracking comic strip by Cailey on Tumblr. I love social media geekery.

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.

The WestEndGeek Quiz

December 29, 2010

To celebrate the festive period, WEG has prepared a little theatre quiz for you – yes, it’s time to get your geek on. And no Googling!

1. What are the names of the three operas performed by the company in The Phantom of the Opera?

2. In Legally Blonde, name two of the reasons which make Callaghan’s legal team wonder if the witness is gay or European?

3. Which of the following was not on Broadway this year?

a) Next to Normal
b) The Scottsboro Boys
c) Little Women
d) Promises, Promises

4) What is the longest-running show currently in the West End?

5) Which show had previously held that title?

6) What do Wicked’s Louise Dearman, Spring Awakening’s Lucy May Barker and Avenue Q’s Paul Spicer have in common?

7) Which main cast member of the Les Miserables 25th Anniversary concert at the O2 was a last-minute replacement?

8 ) Which is the oldest surviving West End theatre and which show is it now home to?

9) Name the theatrical aunt of actresses Summer and Scarlett Strallen.

10) Which iconic theatre role did the mother of pop star Eliza Doolittle create?

11) Which of the following musicals has not spawned a reality TV casting show?

a) The Wizard of Oz
b) Legally Blonde
c) Oliver!
d) Mary Poppins

12) Which show did Wicked’s Alexia Khadime appear in before going green?

13) Name the two Broadway legends that Glee’s Rachel Berry thought might be her biological mother?

14) Which British TV actress went for the part of Baby in Dirty Dancing: the musical, but narrowly missed out?

15) Which of the following actresses was not considered for the lead role in the movie version of Evita, snapped up by Madonna?

a) Meryl Streep
b) Bette Midler
c) Michelle Pfeiffer
d) Olivia Newton-John

Answers to follow. Have a very geeky New Year!

West End bleak?

December 7, 2010

An odd, but fascinating column from The Stage’s Mark Shenton today, on the current titans of the West End, and what he sees as possible lack of a ‘new generation’ of  musical theatre stars. Shenton shows his distinct taste very honestly, listing Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone and Angela Lansbury as shining beacons of Broadway, and pondering our dearth of high-class British equivalents. Firstly, as part of the new generation of theatregoers, these vintage ladies are just not my style. I grew up listening to the likes of the Les Mis original cast, and LuPone and her ilk have a certain camp, self-indulgent tone to their voices that just feels dated now. There is a new rawness in musical theatre, and this should be celebrated. Those warbling wonders were perfect for the original Chicago line-ups (Chita Rivera), and now for classic material like A Little Night Music (Peters and Lansbury), but I don’t think we need new versions of them, especially not in the West End. That is one part of musical theatre history, this is another.

Unfortunately, a large part of this new era is its ‘stunt casting’ (much bemoaned on WEG, so apologies) – producers’ seemingly compulsory casting of at least one ‘face’ from reality TV, soaps or the charts to bring in a wider range of punters. I wish I could say these are all multi-talented folk who simply started off in a less desirable medium, but I have sat through too many shows with one weedy weak link with insufficient breath control and high-school acting (*Jonas*). Sorry, must have slipped while typing there. Apart from anything else, celebrity status is just distracting; you want to be affected by that character, not by how Gareth Gates is playing them. So in this sense I’d say this is a bleak moment for musical theatre talent. The trained, the dedicated and the naturally spine-tingling are being edged out by people for whom fame was  more important than the work they chose. Snobbish perhaps, but WEG’s theatre experience has definitely gone downhill in the past five years or so (although it isn’t entirely new; I remember going as a very small person to see Jason Donovan as Joseph.)

Kerry Ellis

Frequently-smiley, rock'n'rolling Kerry Ellis

When Jason Robert Brown came to London for a two-night gig, it spoke volumes that he hadn’t invited any West End talent to sing his brilliant material. Having said that, if I were asked to cast a JRB-worthy line-up, I’m not entirely sure who I’d pick either. However, I disagree that there are no exciting talents treading our boards; Shenton suggests Kerry Ellis is “carefully positioning herself as” a leading lady, but I would say she’s already there. This smacks of individual dislike, as no one who has seen Ellis sing can deny she is luminous, nuanced and spectacular in range – all leading lady qualities. Anyone remember the sinking feeling when this year’s Over the Rainbow introduced five top ‘leading lady’ mentors, including Tamzin Outhwaite (who later performed incredibly flatly on the show) and Melanie C? Only Ruthie Henshall and Ellis (the new Henshall, really) were really worthy of that title. Sheridan Smith is a tough one; I’ve always admired her as an actress, she is a great TV personality, and she has brought a fresh charm to our Legally Blonde. But her singing is just not up to it, for me. Incidentally, Smith’s understudy Amy Lennox is tremendously talented, but without the Two Pints of Lager and Gavin and Stacey background, it would seem her resume was not starry enough. Let’s not forget that Kerry Ellis first gained admiration as the oft-sickly Martine McCutcheon‘s reliable understudy in My Fair Lady, and some of the best Elphabas I have seen in Wicked were first or second covers (Cassidy Janson and Ashleigh Gray were both stunning.) So we do have leading lady potential in the West End – it’s just not being used enough.

West End Live 2010

The inimitable Julie Atherton

After reading Shenton’s column, I sat and tried to think of those West End Stars who have truly impressed me over the past few years. Julie Atherton, who he has the decency to credit, is someone whose wit, intelligence and power vocals make her a unique presence in our theatre landscape; not to mention her choice of new writing and smaller projects in recent years. John Owen-Jones was probably my favourite performance of the year in the Les Miserables 25th Anniversary tour, played with such fervour and sung with such emotion that it made a well-worn role seem new. Of the reality show darlings, I think Samantha Barks has (excuse the brand) the elusive X factor they all profess to seek, and in terms of leading men Oliver Tompsett has always had that extra charisma, although he is only really associated with Fiyero at this point. Katie Rowley Jones really shone in Sister Act, giving even powerhouse Patina Miller a run for her money. Gemma Sutton, who I saw in the Oklahoma tour this year, also has real potential with her subtle acting and songbird soprano. But while I can list those who I’ve enjoyed in the past few years, I agree that only a handful have been goosebump-inducing. Come on WestEnders; up your game for 2011.