Review – Chess, London Coliseum, 26th May 2018

ChessSome shows just stick with you, all your life. My all-time favourite remains A Chorus Line, and I know Mrs Chrisparkle has a very soft spot for the 1980s National Theatre production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, directed by Alan Ayckbourn and starring Michael Gambon. Ah, happy times. But we both have good reason to put Chess up there with our all-time greats. In that magical summer of 1986 when I was courting Miss Duncansby and we had tickets for so many top shows, Chess was the one that knocked all the others into a cocked hat. London ColiseumA cast to die for – Elaine Paige, Murray Head, Tommy Korberg; the directorial genius of Trevor Nunn; and the lavish setting of the Prince Edward Theatre. In later years, we saw Craig Revel Horwood’s thoroughly disappointing production in 2011, and tend to put it out of our mind when we think of the show in general. So now it was a chance truly to relive our youth and see Chess again in another magnificent setting, with another great cast – you could say, we were really excited.

Chess 1I don’t think I’ve ever paid so much money for a pair of theatre tickets. At £150 each plus booking fee, we worked out that it was about £1 each for every minute. Can any production really be worth that level of investment from a theatregoer? Answer: yes. We both felt that our £150 was great value for what we saw. An incredible multimedia presentation; the sumptuous sounds of the full English National Opera orchestra and chorus; a fabulous cast; and an amazing view from terrific seats. We were well happy with our investment.

Chess 8It’s true that the storyline is slight and the book itself is even slighter. Intemperate American chess champion and showbiz star Freddie Trumper arrives in Merano (where?) to defend his title against the cool, calm Anatoly Sergievsky. Having left his wife and child behind in Mother Russia, Sergievsky falls in love with Florence, the head of the American delegation. Meanwhile Trumper loses both his head and the championship; Sergievsky doesn’t return to the Soviet Union but seeks political asylum in Britain; and both Trumper and Sergievksy meet again in Bangkok for another championship, this time with Trumper commentating for American TV. Does Sergievsky leave his wife and son for Florence? Or does he return home like a good Soviet? Was Florence’s father killed in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution? Does Trumper come to his senses? Chess 6Do we care? Absolutely not. But that’s the strange thing about this show; we don’t particularly care about what happens to the characters. We do, however, care about the songs, and how the performers bring them to life for a new generation of Chess-appreciators.

The staging simply takes your breath away. What appears to be a black backdrop, with various illuminated chessboard squares scattered, as in the famous design logo that has accompanied this show since its conception, is in fact a myriad of LED/projection screens. These display both detailed and frequently exhilarating background scenery – the airplane landing at Merano, or the traditional dragon dance in Bangkok spring to mind – and close-ups (and I do mean close-up) of the cast on stage as they are constantly filmed by cameramen during the show. There is no hiding place whilst those cameramen are out and about.Chess 3 On paper this may sound intrusive or over-the-top but in reality it gives the audience a much closer involvement with what’s going on, that it renders the vast Coliseum auditorium and stage as intimate as a studio theatre; so effective an illusion that you can observe the concentration and characterisations of the actors at close hand. It works incredibly well and absolutely takes your breath away. I was totally gripped by it from the start.

Chess 7Then of course you have the orchestra! Partially hidden behind the screens, they really give the show power and depth; Bjorn and Benny’s incredible score has never sounded so lush and majestic. The Chorus also lends another aspect; whilst they augment the sound splendidly, and the vocal fullness again lends depth and vigour to the performance, it wasn’t always possible to hear precisely every word. Fortunately, and with every respect to Sir Tim Rice, you don’t really come to see Chess for the lyrics – not in the big choral numbers at least. Don’t get me wrong, some of them are great. Others… just aren’t. But it really doesn’t matter!

Chess 2As for the performances, they all irradiate power and authority exactly as you would expect; and each of the characters/performers has at least his one big moment where they bring us to our knees in awe. Michael Ball nails the Anthem, just before the interval, with an absolutely magnificent performance which gives your goosebumps goosebumps. Alexandra Burke and Cassidy Janson elevate I Know Him So Well to a higher plane, with Ms Burke in a TV studio on ground level and Ms Janson atop a bridge overlooking the stage, but captured by the cameramen on the side screens so that their images blend with each other, each looking in different directions; a simple ploy, but so effective. Tim Howar gets more raw emotion out of Pity the ChildChess 5 than I would have thought was possible; it’s like watching a man clinging on to the wreckage, yet not quite totally disintegrating on stage. (OK, Sir Tim, fair do’s, that is one helluva lyric.) Phillip Browne as Molokov rules the roost with the terrific Cossack-style The Soviet Machine, and Cedric Neal is a revelation as the charismatic, dictatorial Arbiter, showing off sensationally in The Arbiter. All this, plus superb renditions of Where I Want to Be, Nobody’s Child and One Night in Bangkok, and I was beaming from ear to ear for the entire afternoon. There was no hesitation anywhere in the audience that this performance was fully deserving of a standing ovation for each and every one of the cast.

Chess 4I’m aware that the production received many rather poor reviews when it opened, so all I can say is they must have worked the hell out of it to bring it up to the standard it was last Saturday afternoon. We loved it; and the buzz in the theatre made it clear that everyone else loved it too. If it wasn’t restricted to a very short run we’d definitely go back again for more – even at those high prices. Possibly the most extravagant production of a musical I’ve ever seen; and that extravagance hits the mark perfectly – it doesn’t strangle it, it enhances it. Total bliss.

Production photos by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Review – Chess, Milton Keynes Theatre, January 28th

ChessWay way back in the days of yore, Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw the original production of Chess, starring Elaine Paige and Tommy Korberg. We think back fondly of it as one of our favourite shows. So it was with great anticipation that we were looking forward to this new production, directed by Craig Revel Horwood no less.

We really really wanted to like this show really really much. And although some aspects of it are excellent, overall I was really really disappointed that I couldn’t like it a lot lot more.

Let’s look at the good things. It’s spectacular. The lighting, the video wall, the set in general are all very innovative and lively. The cast sing beautifully. Shona White and Poppy Tierney give us the old favourite “I Know Him So Well” with purity, clarity and lots of guts. It’s delightful on the ears. James Fox’s interpretation of “Pity the Child” is a masterclass in intensity, a terrific musical and acting performance.

James FoxAnd some – some – of the cast act it brilliantly too. James Fox again – to be honest he wipes the stage with the rest of them. We saw him a few years ago as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar and he was mesmerising. He has a superb stage presence and here makes the rather unattractive character of the American Chess player Freddie Trumper into a complex person that you feel empathy with. You could easily come away from this showing disliking that character – but you don’t. It’s a marvellous performance.

Steve VarnomI also very much liked the acting performance of Steve Varnom as Molokov, the Russian Chess player’s Second; an amusing and at the same time threatening presence, nicely getting into the subtleties of the character. You wouldn’t trust him an inch.

I found Daniel Koek fine enough as Sergievsky the Russian challenger. He sang Anthem well (albeit he was no Tommy Korberg) but I thought he lacked some stage presence, although Mrs Chrisparkle found him quite pleasing to the eye. For us the big disappointment as far as the acting was concerned, was Shona White as Florence. I didn’t get any sense of the character’s development throughout the story. Yes she sings well and looks good but I didn’t feel it was enough. Her falling for Sergievsky came as a complete surprise as there was no growing warmth between them. They had all the sexual chemistry of the queue at Morrison’s.

Daniel Koek And there were some other aspects of the show that I think were meant to have the “wow” factor but for me just got in the way. Having all the chess pieces intricately costumed and playing an instrument is jolly clever but it doesn’t half make for a messy stage. At times there was so much going on, performed by so many people, that there really is a “less is more” lesson to be learned. Another problem with that is that all the cast members have to find somewhere to go – and many times during the show they plonked themselves down along the front of the stage, thereby completely blocking the view of the Front Stalls. I’m old fashioned enough to think that when you block the show you do it so that the audience can see it, not to distance them from it.

Shona White It was also over camp. I’m never one to complain about a reasonable level of campness. But this is too much, and without any obvious justification from the story. The only thing that really suggests camp in the book is the setting for One Night in Bangkok, and unsurprisingly, the costumes and the dance routine for that number border on the obscene. The rest of the show though is a rather serious love-triangle/rectangle where nobody’s on nobody’s side. I would love to see the complete opposite of this production – really pared down with minimal staging and cast numbers – a set that comprises of a chessboard and a black backdrop. You could imagine it at the Menier. Let the book and the score do the talking – they’re really very good. But the chess pieces were distracting in all their camp finery and the whole presentation of the role of the Arbiter was (I felt) camp gone mad. It was all just much too much. Busy busy busy. Distraction distraction.

And one last thing. I wonder if anyone has ever surveyed audience satisfaction at the volume amplification of musicals. We blame Rent, that’s where it all started. Whilst the volume level didn’t actually hurt my eardrums (sometimes it can) it did mean that a lot of the subtleties of the lyrics were lost. We enjoyed the Embassy Lament, but primarily because we remember the amusing performance of it on the Original Stage Cast album and could remember the lyrics from that as we were listening in the theatre. If it had been our first exposure to the song, a lot of its meaning would have been lost on us. We overheard people talking on the way out “Well I got the gist of what was going on but it would have been nice if we could make out the words”. Mrs Chrisparkle gave up trying to unravel the distorted sounds of words in the “Endgame” sequence and just sat back waiting for it to end. Which is a shame really as it’s the denouement.

I think it’s in “Deathtrap” where the characters refer to a play that’s so well written that even a gifted director couldn’t ruin it. That’s rather how I think of this production. Chess is a terrific musical, full of great songs and complex characters. And I think it will continue to be a great musical after this production has gone away. And it’s a huge shame really because so many people have tried very hard to make this work. I do feel that the hard work and its spectacular nature probably does mean it deserves a West End transfer, but to be honest, I can only recommend it on the grounds of James Fox’s performance and the songs of Bjorn, Benny and Sir Tim.