Friday, 22 February 2013

Theatre review: Chess

Musicals don't get much more '80s than Tim Rice, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus' Chess, which uses the rivalry between Russian and American Grand Masters as a metaphor for the Cold War. With music from the songwriters behind ABBA there's a lot of catchy tunes; the story is a bit more of a muddled affair, and Rice has regularly tinkered with the book over the years. His latest version premiered as a concert performance but Christopher Howell and Steven Harris' revival at the Union is the first time this "definitive" version has been fully staged. Ryan Dawson Laight's design configures the space into a thrust with a high platform upstage; you'll probably want to make sure you don't get stuck behind one of the pillars as the platform will probably be badly obscured from there but from our seats, at the corner of the stage, we could see fine.

Arrogant American champion Freddie Trumper (Tim Oxbrow) arrives at the World Chess Championship in Merano in 1979, to take on the Soviet challenger Anatoly Sergievsky (Nadim Naaman.) When Trumper storms out of the first game at a perceived slight, it's down to his second, Florence, to make peace between the men, and in the process Anatoly falls in love with her and defects to the West. When Anatoly defends his new title the next year in Bangkok, the Russians bring his wife Svetlana along as a bargaining tool.

I last saw Chess in Edinburgh in 1994 and one obvious change in the most recent version is that it's now made clearer what the hell happens in the end (I remember a whole bunch of us going to see it and having no clue whether Anatoly had thrown the match at the end or not.) But otherwise the show's story remains a bit of a mess that's probably best accepted that way rather than ask questions like "Why is a TV producer (Neil Stewart) taking part in covert international diplomatic operations?" Also, for a show that supposedly uses chess as a metaphor for hostile nations, it really is quite keen on the actual chess. Characters are always lamenting the fact that these little attempts to avert nuclear Armageddon are getting in the way of the serious business of playing a board game. Basically, approaching Chess' story as a piece of camp on a level with the music is probably your best bet to enjoying it, and the approach I took.

The women stand out here; Sarah Galbraith as Elaine Page Florence and Natasha J. Barnes as Barbara Dickson, the Third Ronnie Svetlana of course get the most famous duet, "I Know Him So Well," although they both stand out more earlier, Barnes with "Someone Else's Story" and Galbraith with "Nobody's Side" and "Heaven Help My Heart" among a number of powerful moments.

Naaman is also in strong voice as Anatoly, even if his relationships with the two women aren't that convincing; but then, once again the script doesn't really give them a chance to develop. I was less of a fan of Oxbrow's Freddie, his straining-over-a-difficult-turd "rawk" delivery the same on every song and not really contributing any light or shade, "Pity The Child" is a very dull interlude indeed. And despite the efforts of a dance sequence that threatens the take the front row's eyes out, he and the directors criminally fail to take advantage of the full ludicrousness of "One Night In Bangkok," a song whose attempts to name the most glamorous locations on earth comes up with "Iceland... or the Philippines... or Hastings," and Oxbrow throws away the line "I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine." I mean, if you can't take joy in the most preposterous line of the the most preposterous song in a preposterous musical, I don't think we're really on the same page.

Craig Rhys Barlow's obvious hotness is somewhat compromised by a soul patch, but I guess ridiculous facial hair is fair enough on a ridiculous character, as the Arbiter's role mainly involves bragging about how all-powerful he is, then telling us how he personally solved problems he clearly had nothing to do with. Also, "any objection is overruled?" Even perfectly reasonable objections? So if Freddie took out a load of scrabble tiles and spelled "checkmate" on the board and Anatoly objected, Anatoly would be overruled? Seems unfair.

So yes, if you come to Chess expecting it to be the serious-minded political musical it claims to be, you're probably going to be disappointed. It's batshit mental, but Vanessa and I like batshit mental, so for us it was a pretty good night out.

Chess by Tim Rice, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus is booking until the 16th of March at the Union Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.


  1. Nice post. Just to help you out with one thing - Walter and Molokov (Molokova in this production) both work for their respective secret services, the KGB and CIA. They are given day to day functions (Chess second and TV producer) to allow them to be close to the action, and manipulate the people they need to manipulate. This is based on true-to-live accounts. Hence everything that both of those characters in Act Two, from The Soviet Machine to the very end of the show when Walter speaks to Florence in the airport.

    1. I thought it was pretty obvious who Molokova really was, but less so with Walter - possibly because the script takes him off on a tangent about TV ratings.