tue 18/06/2024

Chess, London Coliseum review - powerfully sung but still problematic | reviews, news & interviews

Chess, London Coliseum review - powerfully sung but still problematic

Chess, London Coliseum review - powerfully sung but still problematic

Eighties musical remains a melodically rich muddle

Anthemic: Michael Ball as Anatoly in 'Chess'All pictures BrinkhoffMögenburg

Its origins as a concept album cling stubbornly to Chess, the Tim Rice collaboration with the male members of ABBA first seen on the West End in 1986 and extensively retooled since then in an ongoing quest to hit the elusive jackpot.

Following hot on the heels of a (separate) Washington DC revival earlier this year, Laurence Connor's projection-heavy production, presented in commercial collaboration with the ENO, reminds one of the soaring power of this famously lush score even as one wonders whether the story appended to it will ever fully land. 

In some ways, Connor's approach here brings Chess full circle to its first stage iteration as a Barbican concert that preceded its commercial debut at the Prince Edward Theatre. There's no trace of the Richard Nelson book that was supplied for the show's ill-fated Broadway run (which was little short of a disaster). Instead, the songs more or less roll out one after the other, the performers followed throughout most of the performance by a busy cameraman who projects the singers' faces to the auditorium at large. This questionable decision tends to showcase every drop of sweat and make it look as if the show has its own resident stalker. Chess, ENOThe narrative, such as it is, seems oddly prescient, in our newly Cold War-inflected times and in a big-haired American anti-hero called Freddie Trumper (I kid you not), who is played in the performance of the evening by the Canadian-born Tim Howar (pictured centre above); one assumes Howar honed the necessary hard rock fury during his previous stage gig channeling the propulsive 1980s sounds of the jukebox musical, Rock of Ages. (The Coliseum orchestra, too, is on a scale few musicals these days would even attempt.)

Trumper is the volatile chess champ who faces off against a Russian challenger, Anatoly Sergievsky (Michael Ball, thankfully not attempting the accent), while a Hungarian-born emigrée, Florence (the open-faced Cassidy Janson, inheriting Elaine Paige's part of old), plays both men for all they are worth. Sidelined from her husband if not from the score (the character has been given an additional number) is Svetlana (an overemotive Alexandra Burke, pictured left), who partners Florence on the ringing second-act duet, "I Know Him So Well", that remains one of this show's several signature songs. The ever-busy projections at that point layer the two women's faces atop each other. Effective as that visual sequence is, one does otherwise wonder whether the real reason for this production was as a screen audition. 

The calling card for many will be the famously thunderous, vocally demanding score, which positions Chess squarely in the British mega-musical decade of the 1980s from which it sprang. Full-throated and often angry in tone, the piece is cut from the same cloth as Les Mis and The Phantom of the Opera, and Connor furthers the connection by at times specifically evoking the Rice-scripted Evita, another album-turned-stage-show whose 1978 West End bow preceded all these titles.The result doesn't invite much levity, notwithstanding some lederhosen-laden frolics and a high-stepping British Embassy male quartet who look as if they could have stepped out of Patrick Marber's springy revival of Travesties. (Cirque du Soleil gets an unanticipated visual nod during the rap-inflected "One Night in Bangkok" towards the top of the second act.)

Every bit Howar's follicular match, Ball gets to dive into a role that he has been incorporating into his concert act via the first-act closer, "Anthem". On press night it earned a partial standing ovation. So what if Anatoly's character arc is fairly impenetrable beyond allowing for a sentimental finish that, like so much else on view, doesn't make a lot of sense? Ball has been pushing himself in new directions ever since he played Sweeney Todd, and his gusto is palpable throughout. Janson, too, makes a far more personable and human Florence than Paige ever did, and Cedric Neal and Phillip Browne lend proper sonority to choice supporting roles. As for the grid-like logo for the show, a fractured games board that gets carried over into the onstage design, I kept wondering where else I'd seen comparable images only to realise on the way home: the M&S carrier bags could be this musical's visual equivalent. But if you want to hear the show in all its sonic glory, the Coliseum is the place to go.

Michael Ball's gusto is palpable throughout


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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