Stuart King

Second Look: CHESS at ENO London Coliseum

Chess - London Coliseum CHESS represents a quite extraordinary and singular accomplishment in musical theatre: essentially, the original is almost universally loved by anyone who has anything whatsoever to do with... musical theatre.

The reason for this, is NOT that it is in any way remotely elitist; it is because the score, the songs, the emotional sentiment, the lyrics - all, are of a quality which is simply dazzling. The show is intelligent, it is passionate, it is beautiful, it is subtle, it is angry, it is intense, it is romantic, yet it is authoritarian whilst being anti-establishment and the story manages to juggle elements of selfishness with self-sacrifice, and blatant arrogance with reserved demureness. In short, all life is here and it is played-out in front of the world’s media in diverse and exotic locales. What more could a theatregoer wish for? Well, more of wish lists in a moment.

This reviewer has great memories of the original production at the Prince Edward Theatre back in the late 80s and was looking forward to ENO’s revival with Michael Ball headlining as the Russian Anatoly who gets to deliver the perennial favourite of male musical theatre auditionees “Anthem”, which closes the first half. Originally sung by Tommy Körborg (fellow native of Sweden along with the ABBA guys Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus who co-wrote the show with Tim Rice), it would regularly have theatregoers on their feet 30 years ago when standing ovations were still spontaneous rarities delivered by audiences resistant to excessive display (or to rewarding mundane theatre as though it were exceptional). Mr Ball’s valiant rendering didn’t quite induce patriotic tears or waving of the hammer and sickle, but it was a jolly enjoyable effort all the same.

Whilst the semi-staged nature of the production means corners have been cut in terms of the chessboard ballet (which originally accompanied the chess match sequence), the replacement projection montage which fluidly zapped through a multitude of unsettling memory jerkers from the Cold War era, was superbly achieved. Images of Sputnik, JFK, Brezhnev, ICBMs, Yuri Gagarin, the invasion of Afghanistan, SALT II, Reagan, and the Moscow/L.A. Olympic boycotts, chillingly assailed the senses. Contrary to many reviewers who have remarked that this severely dates the show, I would reflect that recent Kim Jong-un rocket test launches, US sabre-rattling responses and Russian strategic resurgence has added a stark relevance to this timely revival.

I also take issue with the mealy 2-star ratings several journalists have chosen to bestow on ENO’s efforts at bringing this wonderful piece to a modern audience. The creators have tweaked music and lyrics in several areas of the show to update those sections requiring period clarity - as indeed they have done throughout its existence. Many will be fully aware of the differences between the original rock opera concept album, the London cast recording and the later US cast version which most notably includes the addition of Svetlana’s “Someone Else’s Story” sung in this production by fellow bums-on-seats name Alexandra Burke. Ms Burke also gets to open the second half of this revival (bumping “One Night In Bangkok” along a notch) with a passionate explanation of her less-than-ideal wifely situation, which whilst not entirely in keeping with the original gave her an opportunity to vent her lungs, appear forlorn and earn her second billing (whilst bizarrely appearing disconnected from both the audience and rest of the cast at all times). Canadian Tim Howar scratches his way through the high rock tenor notes and vulnerable arrogance required for the American (Freddie Trumper) who relinquishes both his chess champion crown and then his love interest to his Russian adversary. The love interest (Florence Vassy played starchily by Elaine Paige in the original London production) is portrayed here by the radiant redhead Cassidy Janson looking like a fiery Maureen O’Hara and imbuing every scene in which she appears with energetic zing and a melodic, moving resonance. If there is any justice, CJ’s star will continue to ascend and she will be putting bums on seats in her own right in the very near future.

Under the baton of John Rigby the orchestra which is raised above the staging, get their teeth in the score, although some sections felt a little tentative and deserved more oomph. The omission of brief electric guitar links which added a dangerous energy to the original score seemed a poor choice for cutting and were missed by this reviewer.

Stephen Mear once again demonstrates why he is called upon around the globe to whip casts into choreographic shape. Scene with excitable Tyrolean mountain villagers, drunken Cossacks and stiff British Embassy staff were playful and effective. The Bangkok section perhaps needed more work and lacked some originality but the music more than varnished over any shortfall.

Chess is a musical which is blessed with so many core strengths, that it is almost impossible for those amazing qualities not to shine through - they are certainly much in evidence in this marvellous, vibrant ENO revival and the ungenerous reviews won’t remotely reflect the great joy which countless theatregoers will garner from seeing and hearing this spectacular revival.

I urge anyone who hasn’t yet done so, to snap-up a ticket. You are sure to recognise 3 or 4 of the hits from the show and the written-through score provides pulse and energy throughout, which will send you homeward bound with a spring in your step and wondering why it has taken producers so long to give it space in London’s vibrant West End.

Read our Chief Theatre Critic, Phil Willmott's review HERE.

Stuart King attended a preview performance.