For those who have known Tim Rice’s musical, Chess since it’s conception in 1984, it’s been a thirty four year wait to see it staged again in the West End. And with Russian/American relations as they are today with the threat of another cold war looming, (not to mention ABBA releasing their new album), the timing really couldn’t be more fortuitous.
As Russian Anatoly and American Freddie face each other in the World Chess Federation Championships, the scheming and manipulations of men with huge egos who wield power over individuals and nations are in the spotlight. The vast Coliseum with the entire ENO symphony orchestra is the perfect setting for the grand ambition of Tim Rice and composer’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeaus (the BB in ABBA). Pop-rock power ballads that’ll give you a musical theatre high, unusually matched by soaring orchestral sections with recurring elegiac motifs.
It’s only seeing Chess staged that you realise what an awkward and grown up story this is for a musical. Why should two men silently facing each other over a chess boards for hours on end be in the slightest bit dramatic? One answer lies in director, Laurence Connor’s, use of close-ups with much of the action being filmed live on stage and projected in real time. But of course Chess is as much about the moves we make in our emotional and political lives as on the chess board and it’s in the psychological realism of these flawed hero’s that the drama lies.
An extraordinary cast of musical heavy-weights with a range of vocal styles have been brought together for the relatively short run. Bombastic ensemble numbers are staged with grand displays of fire and gymnasts during hits like ‘One Night in Bankok’ then swiftly contrasted with intimate ballads like ‘Pity the Child’ where Tim Howar’s arrogant, bullying Freddie is suddenly reduced to a desperate, lonely child. It’s here that Tim Rice’s lyrics cut to the heart of these ambitious but insecure characters, raising Chess above any ordinary musical.
Alexandra Burke and Cassidy Janson (who starred in Beautiful the Carole King musical) are powerful as Svetlana and Florence, the Chess champions wife and lover. Their duet of musical standard, ‘I know him so well’ which most of us also know so well, is delivered with a fresh contemporary feel. The vocals of Cedric Neal as the Arbiter of the game and Philip Browne’s resonant bass (playing Molokov) are another highlight.
Chess as a musical is a huge and rangy creature. The story can feel a little hard to follow at the start (if you don’t know it already) and the leads are selfish, arrogant men. But their stories are familiar, and the women are no fools. What cannot be denied is the sheer number of huge songs and to witness Michael Ball belting out ‘Anthem’ on a rising stage with the sound of the ENO orchestra behind him, is nothing short of thrilling.
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