Friday, 11 May 2018

Theatre review: Chess

Growing up in the 1980s I remember chess championships, particularly those that pitted an American grand master against a Soviet one, always seeming to be in the news, so at the time basing a blockbuster musical around a chess match didn't seem entirely like a terrible idea. But time can put perspective on a lot of things, and from a viewpoint not just of 2018 but pretty much every year since Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice's Chess first took to the stage it's been obvious that it is, entirely, a terrible idea. Musically, the songwriting team behind ABBA provide some predictably strong numbers, but the story is so notoriously bad that it's been constantly rewritten in a desperate attempt to make it even borderline comprehensible. This is the third production I've seen, each using a slightly different book, and this one barely uses any book at all, but after thirty-odd years of rewriting at least one thing has succeeded: In terms of the basic story beats at least, it is now borderline comprehensible.

Why any of these story beats happen, on the other hand, remains as mysterious as ever: The musical's two acts take place a year apart, at successive world chess championship finals, each featuring an East-West clash.

In Merano, Italy, the American bad boy of chess Freddie Trumper (Tim Howar) faces up to Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (*Michael Ball*) and is beaten, immediately retiring from the game in a strop; Anatoly, who's fallen for Freddie's "second" and ex, Florence (Cassidy Janson,) defects to the UK. A year later in Bangkok, Anatoly now represents the West in a clash with the latest Soviet contender (Cellen Chugg Jones, also playing Freddie at some performances) but finds that his former nation has brought along a secret weapon to blackmail him with: The wife he left behind, Svetlana (Alexandra Burke,) as well as their son.

Just like Flo Rida, I too can now say "Alexander girl I know what you like." You like polyester.

I always say that even after all these years I can't tell how much the Act II opener (although pushed a couple of songs further in in this particular iteration) "One Night In Bangkok" is a piss-take and how much it's deadly serious about mocking Bangkok sex tourists when they could be looking at people playing chess instead. In the case of that particular song it just adds to its camp appeal but Laurence Connor's production at the Coliseum only makes it obvious that the whole show has a problem with taking itself too seriously. Terry Scruby's projection work is a major element of the production, coming to life on a really rather good set from Matthew Kinley that explodes a chess board out into the auditorium. There are moments when the video design gets very close to Tron and I found myself wishing Scruby had just gone all-out and camped up the '80s touches, as the show really needs that element of kitsch.

Instead Connor's production is pretty much played straight, which as well as highlighting the plot's problems also makes it unfortunately obvious how reliant it is on national stereotypes for its setpieces; Howar might settle very firmly on the side of singing "One Night In Bangkok" as a complete piss-take but the attempt at a spectacular staging still comes down to an uncomfortable scene mainly involving lots of tumblers in yellowface. And then there's the story itself, which for something using chess matches as a metaphor for the Cold War does seem suspiciously like it's just actually about chess matches - there's at least two full games played out in real time, and Scruby's videos throwing up loads of archive footage of the Cold War does start to feel like a desperate attempt to distract from how dull what's actually happening on stage is.

As for the personal story, *Michael Ball* and Cassidy Janson have as much raw animal chemistry as... well, *Michael Ball* and anyone else, but it's not like they've got much to work with. Worse off is Burke, who's very good, which unfortunately only highlights how little we see of her; Svetlana's a cypher who only exists to bemoan losing her man. (When I first saw this on the Edinburgh Fringe in 1994, some friends and I were talking in the interval and got told off by a Swedish woman who overheard us describing the songwriters as ABBA, telling us actually the musical style was very different to ABBA. And then comes Act II and the most famous song, a ballad in which two women duet about a breakup.)

Phillip Browne lends mellifluous support as Molokov, but this version of the book has excised his character's American counterpart entirely, leaving Anatoly's second a vague figure. And Cedric Neal's twinkly-eyed performance of "The Arbiter" suggests he's aware of the ridiculousness of how much godlike importance a chess arbiter assumes he has, but again he's not a character we see enough of to really make a difference. There's a lot I like about Chess, but apart from the music itself most of this comes from its inherent daftness - I particularly like how, two Swedish songwriters having brought on an English one to do the lyrics, Tim Rice still manages to make the songs sound like they were written by someone who doesn't have English as their first language ("I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine.") But by dialling up the bombast and dialling down the camp, Connor's production just highlights the show's weaknesses and ends up surprisingly dull.

Chess by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice is booking until the 2nd of June at the London Coliseum.

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg.

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