Tweetingit: 5***** A chess Master-piece makes a triumphant return to the West End. Beautifully sung & visually stunning – if you’ve got a pulse, you’ll love this!
Chess had its first West End run at the Prince Edward Theatre from 1986-1989. Having seen the latest production two questions persistently nag at the back of my mind; how on earth did I miss this show first time around…and why has it taken over 30 years to make its London return? I arrived at the London Coliseum unfashionably early. The paps were gathering around the main entrance, but managed to give them the slip as I brushed shoulders with Michael Grade.
A grand four-tier auditorium greets patrons with a sense of occasion slowly takes hold. An excellent set design was predictably based on a chess board illuminated according to the scene. The orchestra were pitched centre stage and flanked by giant screens; always useful in a theatre of this size, and also means you don’t stare at dots if seated in the balcony
It tells the story of two grandmasters striving for supremacy; their respective nations (USA and Russia) see their match as symbolic of conflicting ideologies and covet the propaganda value of victory – a scenario reminiscent of the duel between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in 1972. A new cold war may well have begun, but the reference point for this portrayal is firmly rooted in the 80s. However, it doesn’t need to make political points and is not an academic study of east-west relations; it’s really a love story providing a highly effective vehicle for some great songs.
Anatoly (Michael Ball) is the Russian grandmaster challenging American Freddie (Tim Howar) for his title.
Anatoly’s wife Svetlana (Alexandra Burke) dutifully waits for her husband’s return; while Florence (Cassidy Janson) acts as second to Freddie but carries a burning torch for Anatoly. With music by the Abba boys and lyrics penned by Tim Rice, one expects a certain standard and these songs do not disappoint. The classic Abba hallmarks are particularly strong on the ballads, particularly heaven help my heart and someone else’s story, the latter beautifully sung by Alexandra Burke.
Act II picks up the story in the Far East as Anatoly now exiled, prepares to defend his title against new Russian hope Viigand.Freddie is now working in the media and sets up the show’s most rousing song, one night in Bangkok. The visuals accompanying this number are breathtaking and I cannot ruin the impact with a detailed description. Inevitably, the two women fighting for Anatoly’s affections confront each other. I know him so well is a classic lament shared by Florence and Svetlana – and both realise Anatoly will never truly belong to either of them; another typical Abba song of angst and heartbreak.
Cassidy Jansen and Alexandra Burke were both outstanding, but feel that Cassidy just about shaded the battle of the divas. The male leads were much more of a contrast; Michael Ball, an elder statesman of musical theatre, still cuts a more than fine baritone, while Tim Howar rocks out more authentically on the heavier songs. It’s difficult to fault a show that’s so well staged and performed; they even managed to keep the chess sequences down to a minimum. The entire house was on its feet at the end as Benny, Bjorn and Tim Rice took their bow on stage. Chess almost feels like a new show, it’s been away so long. The West End needs a new crowd pleasing musical and I think we’ve found it.
Music: Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus
Lyrics: Tim Rice
Director: Laurence Connor
Musical Supervisor: Anders Eljas
Conductor: John Rigby
Choreographer: Stephen Mear
Producers: Michael Linnet and Michael Grade
Box Office: 0207 492 1532
Booking until: 2nd June 2018