Paul T Davies reviews Chess the musical which is now enjoying a five week all-star return season at the London Coliseum.
1 May 2018
“Each game of chess means one less variation to be played.” Thus Tim Rice’s lyrics open The Story of Chess. Now it should be added that each production of Chess means there’s one more variation to enjoy. Vastly reworked from that 1984 concept album, the West End and Broadway productions, and with East/West relations entering a new, freezing Cold War, the big question is, “Is this the production of Chess we have been waiting 32 years for?”
Well, the Coliseum is the perfect venue for the vocal power and complexities of this score, and the ultimate stars of the show are the ENO orchestra and chorus under conductor John Rigby, the show has never sounded so good. Director Laurence Connor creates a production of vivid life, and sensibly knows that this musical gives its lead performers excellent opportunities to storm the barn. I recall the original West End production as being somewhat austere, mainly black and white, but here set designer Matt Kinley creates a neon infused world of colour, with projections providing a useful background to the history and politics of the Cold War, helping shape the most difficult aspect of the story- the politics. (The love story is actually quite simple). The cast are even projected on to the screens during solos and duets, and although this sometimes heads us towards a pop concert, it is perfectly fitting for a venue this size- in fact the further from the action the better you will enjoy the spectacle.
But it is the singing you will take away from you, and what a superb cast have been assembled for this production. Michael Ball further cements his reputation as one of our finest musical theatre stars in the role of the Russian, Anatoly, who defects from the East after falling in love with Florence. His rendition of the Act One closer, Anthem, is spine tingling and, in a part that requires his character to keep control of his emotions, really conveys the heartache of exile.
As Florence, defecting between West and East lovers, Cassidy Janson is emotional and brilliant, particularly in Heaven Help My Heart, and Tim Howar excels as the rock star of chess, the American Freddie Trumper, swaggering and arrogant, but revealing his insecurity in the superb Pity The Child. The part of Svetlana, the wronged Russian wife abandoned by Anatoly, has been greatly developed since the original, here bringing in Someone Else’s Story from the Broadway show and He is A Man, he is a Child, from the Swedish production.
Alexandra Burke is a powerful singer, but here feels miscast, lacking empathy. That may be the role, which still feels two dimensional, but her rendition of those rarely heard songs is worth being in the audience for. Phillip Browne is outstanding as conniving Molokov, and Cedric Neal relishes his role of the Arbiter.
Of course, no production can hide the weaknesses of the musical. One, it involves chess, two, the plot is actually quite simple, it’s the political wrangling that make it unwieldy in places, and, three, the show is male dominated. I hadn’t quite appreciated how long it is before Florence takes centre stage, longer for Svetlana. But there are many fantastic set pieces, (One Night in Bangkok, The Soviet Machine and the wonderful Endgame), and it’s in the second half in particular the company harness the power of the piece and raise the proverbial roof. And the answer is yes. This IS the production of Chess we have waited 32 years for.