Phil Willmott

Review: CHESS at the London Coliseum

Chess There's an old theatrical adage, the clean version of which goes, “You can't polish a dud but you can roll it in glitter" and oh, the glitter wrapped around the first ever revival of rock musical CHESS currently enjoying a limited run at the London Coliseum.

A huge orchestra and vast company of performers, lead by exceptional musical theatre stars belt out the endlessly stirring score by ABBA's Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice's pithy lyrics, amidst a swirl of breathtaking projections in Laurence Conner's spectacular production that makes a mockery of the fact it's advertised as a concert staging.

But at the heart is a weak story, also by Rice, that it's hard to engage with no matter how many key changes ramp up the emotions or bright lights they swirl around auditorium.

It's been a much loved score ever since it was released as a concept album in the 1980's. I love it too. Repeat listening over the decades means I know much of it off by heart and hearing magnificent songs like Someone Else's Story, I Know Him So Well and Nobody’s On Nobody’s Side, performed by the glorious orchestra and stars is like running into old friends you'd forgotten you adored so much. There were times when I was completely transported.

So why do I call it a dud?

Tim Howar, displaying a powerful rock voice, plays American chess champion, Freddie. The character is such spoilt narcissist that it's impossible to like or care about him, even when we discover later he had an abusive father in show stopper Pity the Child.

Michael Ball, his soaring voice as majestic as ever, plays Russian champion, Anatoly, a man so stolid and one dimensional that it's hard to give a damn, even when he sings of his stirring if unusual brand of patriotism in the show stopper Anthem.

Cassidy Jansen, looking and sounding stunning, plays Florence, the girlfriend of one of the chess masters, who's so fickle it's hard to care less as she swaps her affections to the other, even though she explains she has trust issues in the show stopper Nobody's On Nobody's Side.

Alexandra Burke, shimmering with class, plays Anatoly's' wife, Svetlana, a door mat of a woman who's so placid in adversity that we're really not bothered, even as she tells us how they met in a relatively new, definitely non, show stopper and of course in the bit of I Know Him So Well originally sung by Barbara Dixon. Good to know Svetlana does because we don't.

The action takes place against a backdrop of cringe making national stereo types. In Switzerland there’s Lederhosen and tankards of beer, the British have bowler hats and rolled umbrellas, Bangkok is represented by prostitutes and temple dancer, Americans are brash and all about the money but most fatally of all the show assumes we think all Russians are evil and they're depicted swigging vodka and Cossack dancing.

Despite these reservations I'm still going to give it three stars, many critics have only given it two. Go for the spectacle and the musical performances and you’ll definitely get your money’s worth of glossy West End Show.

Just as long as you know there'll be a hole at the show's heart where a good story should be.

Chess tickets