The Union Theatre deservedly won this year’s Stage 100 fringe theatre of the year award, and Chess offers proof why. It is another of this theatre’s revelatory reclamations of a famously problematic yet powerfully scored show. It has arguably the best of all the 80s pop opera scores, and is thrillingly rendered in the unmiked conditions of this chamber theatre by a cast of 16 and superb band of six led by Simon Lambert, which is more than a third of the total audience watching it.
That intimacy and power both amplify and clarify the sometimes convoluted drama as it brings the characters into unavoidably close-up focus. “Each game of chess means there’s one less variation left to be played,” we are informed in Tim Rice’s brilliantly clever and pointed lyrics to the opening song of the show, which he wrote to Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson’s insistently memorable tunes. Each production of Chess, by contrast, brings yet another variation being played to how the show is interpreted.
Co-directors Christopher Howell and Steven Harris here add an opening montage that sets the scene with a violent massacre, which may not be too helpful for those not yet familiar with the backstory of Florence, the Hungarian born partner and lead team support to the American chess player Freddie Trumper whose competition with the Russian Anatoly Sergievsky for the World Chess Championship becomes a battle of wills, love and nationality on and off the chessboard.
But elsewhere the shifting dynamics of the relationships between this central trio is rendered faultlessly, thanks to performances of fierce concentration and vocal power from Sarah Galbraith as Florence, Tim Oxbrow as Freddie and Nadim Naaman as Anatoly. There’s also terrific support all round from a magnificent, hard-working ensemble, which includes Gillian Fitzpatrick as an uncompromisingly scary leader of the Russian delegation Molokova (a character whose sex has been transposed from the usual Molokov).
This production of Chess, in short, has all the right moves to make this Cold War musical feel red hot.