Chess: The Musical Review

Submitted by Alex Eades on Thu, 23 Sep '10 4.00pm
Rating (out of 5)
Show details
Chess Productions Ltd
Craig Revel Horwood (Director & Choreography), Tim Rice (Book and Lyrics), Benny Andersson & Bjorn Ulvaeus (Music), Sarah Travis (Musical Supervision & Orchestrations), Greg Arrowsmith (Musical Direction), Colin Pink (Sound Design), Ben Cracknell ( Lighting Design), Jack James (Vidio Design), Tracy Stiles (Costume Supervision), Patrick Molony (Production Management), David Bownes/Beth Eden (General Management)
James Fox (Freddie Trumper), Shona White (Florence Vassy), Daniel Koek (Anatoly Sergievsky), Poppy Tierney (Svetlana Sergievsky), David Erik (The Arbiter), James Graeme (Walter De Courcey), Steve Varnom ( Alexander Molokov)
Running time

It was my great uncle John that first introduced me to, what I think is safe to say as it is quite widely considered to be, one of the greatest, if not indeed the greatest, games of all time. And with a shiny, silver ten pence promised to the palm of the triumphant (quite a hefty sum for a sweetie loving seven year old during the early 80’s) enthusiasm elevated with every hard fought, if still occasionally lovingly gifted, victory.

Soon, of course, the money and the sweets didn’t matter anymore and it was the desire for the game in all of its drama that excited and drove me.....that and my harshly realised understanding of why uncle Johnny had been known from time to time to keep his teeth in a half full wine glass upon the sink in the bathroom.

Whilst chess the game is greeted with universal applause, the musical has not always had such a grand reception since its explosive arrival at the West End scene in 1986, with reviews being mixed at best. At Broadway, in 1988, despite a dramatic reimagining, the critics panned the show and it was swiftly closed down.

So what of Chess: The Musical in 2010?  What is its position? The pieces are in place, but is the strategy right?

Set in the context of a Cold War struggle, America and Russia go head to head at a world chess championship. Tensions burn further when the manager of one falls in love with the other and the propaganda war spins out of control. Will love outplay the dirty tactics of politics?

Achieving greatness is like trying to grip onto a wet bar of soap. It takes great care and skill to grasp it, if only briefly. Many don’t see it at all and consequently slip and fall flat on their faces. Chess, whilst it reaches out with both hands in love and warmth, just cannot catch that which it desires.

And the problems here are the same problems that it has always had. In short, it is overlong and messy. The songs are mostly unmemorable and tell the story at such a snail’s pace that it is difficult to remain focused on, or even to care about, what is unfolding.

In all fairness though, it does not make all of the wrong moves. The cast are simply astounding. Shona White and Daniel Koek are breathtakingly good as the victims of ‘forbidden love’, singing with effortless beauty and range throughout.

The stand out moment, however, was a beautiful duet between Shona White and Poppy Tierney, the estranged wife of the Russian chess player. Their performance of I Know Him So Well (a number one single and only truly great song from Chess) really made us, the audience, feel something and was rewarded with a rapturous applause upon its conclusion.

The set is impressive and the costumes are all very lavish, but the problems with Chess cannot be disguised by such things. And, though it saddens me to say it, it does seem that this was perhaps their game plan. That this was their strategy. And it failed.

The Arbiter utters to American chess player Freddy Trumper near the beginning of the show that the player is not greater than the game.

 When it comes to Chess: The Musical, I must respectively disagree.