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Chess – Union Theatre, London

Music: Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus

Lyrics: Tim Rice

Director: Christopher Howell and Steven Harris

Reviewer: Ian Foster

[rating:2.5]

With music from Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA and conceived by Tim Rice who also contributed the lyrics, the 1980s musical Chess had grand ambitions which have never really come to fruition as it remains a show that has been revised as often as it has been revived. This new production at the powerhouse of intimate musical theatre that is the Union is a version which has been sanctioned by Rice himself as the definitive version of this story of a love triangle in the world of international chess competitions set against the backdrop of the Cold War. But the potency of an intimate venue has to be carefully captured in order to make it truly work and this is where Chess comes a little unstuck.

Ryan Dawson Laight’s design has recast the Union into a shallow thrust, the size of the theatre meaning that most of the seats end up on the sides. Not an issue at all in and of itself but Laight has a large platform take up most of the space at the rear of the stage and so much of the action is forced forward and this, combined with co-directors Christopher Howell and Steven Harris having the performers play predominantly straight ahead, results in a production that too rarely engages with the vast majority of its audience. For the handful of eight or so people facing the stage head-on, it must be marvellous but if the theatre were full, more people would actually see Florence’s back than her face during the bruisingly raw final scene – that two directors can misuse such an intimate space this way is certainly problematic.

It is largely well performed though and for the female rôles, the casting is pretty much perfect. Sarah Galbraith’s Florence – the woman who looks after one grandmaster, the American Freddie, but falls in love with his main rival, the Soviet Anatoly – brims with restrained feeling and quiet passion, able to beautifully deliver both the power of Nobody’s Side and the delicacy of Heaven Help My Heart within a heartbeat of each other. Natasha J Barnes has a glorious impact on the second half as Anatoly’s abandoned wife Svetlana and if their duet on I Know Him So Well is a little safe in its prettiness, Barnes smashes it on Someone Else’s Story. And in a gender-swapped rôle, Gillian Kirkpatrick makes a vivid impression as Molokova, Anatoly’s KGB-friendly second.

There’s a little less success with the men. Nadim Naaman definitely has the rich vocal for the conflicted Anatoly but plays him with a touch too much reserve, one longs for a greater emotional depth to drive the character along. But Tim Oxbrow shows the strain as his rock vocal can’t always quite meet the challenges of Trumper’s part and Craig Rhys Barlow fails to make The Arbiter a sufficiently controlling presence in the story, he’s often just lost in the crowd of the company. It is clear though that the male rôles just aren’t as well written, leaving the actors to fight an uphill battle.

Simon Lambert’s six-strong band sounds better when the strings are higher in the mix than the more general homage to the 80s that never lets us forget when the show was written and though there are several classic songs in the show, the score as a whole has a wearying familiarity which is not helped by the dour nature and heavy-handedness of Tim Rice’s lyrics. And so though the show’s reputation may leave one questioning why it has taken so long for a revival to come back to London, the reality is clear to see that it is a somewhat problematic piece of theatre. This production addresses some of those issues and pulls together a female cast that is well worth the effort of securing a ticket, but also poses problems of its own to create a decidedly mixed bag.

Runs until 16th March

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