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.