Music: Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus
Book and Lyrics: Tim Rice
Director and Choreographer: Craig Revel Horwood
Reviewer: Jim Nicholson
I loved it all, well very nearly all! The staging was excellent, superb lighting, terrific costumes, top notch choreography, great songs many of which we all know so well and a host of multi talented actor/musician/singer/dancers.
So what was not to like? Well there was just one drawback, 50% of the lyrics and narrative were inaudible. The musical sound though was fine and luckily for me, having seen various guises of the show a dozen times or more, I know the story and the words back to front. The danger here though is how others, not in the same boat, will deal with it.
So why was it so difficult to hear what was being said? Was it the Russian accents being used by three main members of the cast? Well partly, because the main problems did come around their songs but I still had difficulties at times with a couple of others playing characters from the west.
I remember seeing Henry Goodman play the lead in Fiddler on the Roof around 18 months ago and, just before that, Michael Crawford as Count Fosco in the Women in White. Both rôles played with strong eastern accents but both characters 100% understandable in song and word. Perhaps only the very best can carry this off, especially as there have been some difficulties in the past around this element of Chess.
Well lets not harp on the disappointing bit and lets make sure everyone is well aware of what a great night out this is. Revel Horwood has taken yet another well known show and stamped his significant actor musician mark on it. And boy does it work here. It is a spectacle from start to finish, you can not take your eyes off the stage for a split second.
He has directed a great version of an ‘almost’ classic, really bringing to the fore the chess aspect with all the pieces cast, both black and white, able to pair up throughout. It’s the Knights (Christian Gibson and Peter Dukes) and the Rooks (Alexander Evans and Bernd Windhofer) who really catch the eye throughout despite being surrounded by a host of other stand out Kings, Queens, Bishops and Pawns.
The orchestrations of Sarah Travis, the set and costume design of Christopher Woods and the lighting of Ben Cracknell are all, like Revel Horwood’s direction and choreography, five star. Woods, although working entirely in black and white, has given us such dramatic shaped performers. The electric background and electric stage upon a stage allows Cracknell’s lighting to play as significant a rôle in telling the story as any lighting design I have seen in any show in recent years.
Horwood though is a connoisseur of precision and movement and this means all routines are in perfect unison and not an inch of the stage is wasted. Once again he has achieved the unbelievable of the on stage instruments adding to the spectacle rather than intruding in any way.
Oops, must not forget the cast. Star turn is Shona White who, as Hungarian exile Florence Vassy, has to deal with the spite of American World Champion Freddie Trumper before falling for his conqueror, the Russian Anatoly Sergievsky. White gives great renditions of ‘Heaven Help My Heart’, ‘You and I’ and ‘I Know Him So Well’.
Trumper is played by James Fox and again he gives a mighty fine performance and delivers the highlight of the night with his version of ‘Pity the Child’. But when he ends up as a TV interviewer he unfortunately joins the Russians in the land of the hard to hear, I also felt his ‘One Night in Bangkok’ was somewhat under powered.
Sergievsky (Daniel Koek) also has some great moments, none more so than ‘Anthem’, but I just wish the diction was clearer. Same here with Steve Varnom, as Alexander Molokov, the Russian puppet master who, despite the sound reservations, was at times outstanding in his master manipulator rôle. Let’s also remember that Varnom understudied and took over for three months the Crawford, Count Fosco, rôle mentioned earlier. This just adds to the mystery of the evenings main ‘blip’.
David Erik is a very decent Arbiter while James Graeme, as TV mogul Walter De Courcey, is his always wonderful self. So this leads me to my third Russian and the one who actually conquered the accent, Poppy Tierney. As Sergievsky’s abandoned wife, Svetlana, she enchants with both ‘Someone Else’s Story’ and the duet ‘I know Him So Well’. Both are delivered in what was certainly the most believable and decipherable accent of the night.
So, a five star show is reduced to four stars because I wanted to hear all, well at least most of, the words and not just half of them. Do not let this put you off though, even with the accent problems this still knocks spots off most other musicals. Craig Revel Horwood is certainly a Chess ‘Master’.