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Chess at the London Coliseum – review round-up

Tim Howar, Michael Ball and Cedric Neal (centre, back) in Chess. Photo: BrinkhoffMoogenburg
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What a time to be alive, if you’re an Abba fan (and who isn’t?). Not only have the Swedish pop legends announced a sensational return to the recording studio after a 35-year hiatus (new music coming in December), but there’s another film on the way (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is out in July), and to cap it all, there’s the return of Benny, Bjorn and Tim Rice’s 1980s musical Chess to the London stage.

Back in the game: Chess returns to the West End

Chess has had a chequered history. Developed in the early eighties, it was released first as a concept album in 1984, went on a European concert tour, and finally made it to the theatrical stage in 1986 in a star-studded West End production directed by Trevor Nunn that would run for three years. A radically rewritten version flopped on Broadway in 1988, and despite several national and international touring productions, it’s not had a big-budget, box-office London revival since. Until now.

Read about how understudy Cellen Chugg Jones stepped in halfway through the first preview

Here we go again, then. Directed by Laurence Connor, and starring Michael Ball, Alexandra Burke, Tim Howar and Cassidy Janson, Chess is at the Coliseum until early June, in a version far closer to the West End original than the Broadway bum note. It’s another collaboration between the ENO and GradeLinnit – the partnership that’s brought us a hit-and-miss roster of revivals in recent years, including Sweeney Todd, Sunset Boulevard and Carousel.

Read our interview with Alexandra Burke

But do Connor and his starry cast capture the contradictions of Chess? Does the Abba boys’ sparkling score still knock the critics over? Or is it back to square one for everyone involved?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Chess – Paper-thin and politically incorrect

Tim Howar in Chess. Photo: BrinkhoffMoogenburg
Tim Howar in Chess. Photo: BrinkhoffMoogenburg

Chess is about two rival grandmasters, one American, one Soviet, and their love affairs. But it’s really a not-so-subtle metaphor about US-Soviet relations during the Cold War. When it faltered and flopped on Broadway in 1988, the critics panned Chess for its paper-thin plot and sledgehammer approach to global politics. Plus ça change, as it turns out.

“There’s something inherently bizarre about making chess — a static and cerebral pursuit — the central motif of a gargantuan musical,” observes Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★), while Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★) notes that “the plot feels like it could only have come from a very specific era in which a non-ironic yarn about bad-boy Cold War chess players (ikr?) seemed like a viable scenario for a musical.”

There are “cardboard characters, a non-existent book, global politics that often turn into racial stereotyping, and more than one scene where the audience has to watch a chess match being played in real time,” slams Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★). “This production’s politics have accidentally stayed in the 80s. The cast is generally impressively diverse, but one scene in Thailand has the ensemble dressed and made up as Thai people, and two men as ladyboys.”

“The lack of emotional engagement and an absence of tension means you’d find more meaning and have more fun if you stayed home and played tiddlywinks,” writes Lyn Gardner (Guardian, ★★), as Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★) labels the show “an unwieldy mix of romantic angst and geopolitical subterfuge” and Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★★★★) calls it a “problematic, unwieldy story.”

“The story itself is paper-thin, jerked forward in shifts as stiff as moves on a board, and the characters are undernourished,” agrees Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★). “Without a proper dramatic core, this monumental staging runs into stalemate.”

“Why? Why did they revive it?” questions Ann Treneman (Times, ★★), while Alice Jones (The I, ★★) calls the musical “as relevant as a puffball skirt, or Kajagoogoo”.

The show stands accused by most of being plot-light and politically incorrect (that Thailand scene in particular takes a walloping), but it has a few defenders. Mark Valencia (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★) thinks it’s diplomatic overtones “reek of prescience”, while Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★) calls it “thematically rich”.

Most reviews tend to concur, though: a musical about two chaps playing chess is about as interesting as it sounds.

Chess – Thank you for the music

Alexandra Burke in Chess at the London Coliseum. Photo: BrinkhoffMogenburg
Alexandra Burke in Chess. Photo: BrinkhoffMogenburg

But Chess isn’t well-loved for its literary heritage or its insightful political commentary. It’s known for its score. Benny and Bjorn collaborated here on some stone-cold classics: I Know Him So Well, Pity the Child, Heaven Help My Heart (there’s even a new one for Alexandra Burke, lifted from a depoliticised Swedish version from 2002). And if there’s one thing the critics can agree on, it’s that the Abba boys could sure write a tune.

“Then as now, its great selling point is that the score is the work of Abba’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus,” writes Hitchings. “The mighty ENO orchestra under John Rigby does justice to their mix of swooning melodies, fragile ballads, explosive rock and bursts of comic opera.”

“The best songs are superb, that million-dollar Abba sound elaborated and enriched by Rice’s witty contributions,” gushes Valencia, while Lukowski notes that “if this was just a concert, it would be a good concert” and Shenton suggests that Chess “may have never sounded orchestrally better.”

“The ENO chorus and orchestra bring the idiosyncratic score to glorious life, from the satirical numbers through to the full-blooded, pop/rock power ballads,” agrees Swain. “The lush romanticism comes soaring through, and where the drama doesn’t quite click, the music adds superb emotional texture.”

And how does the star-studded cast – Michael Ball and Tim Howar as the competing masters, Alexandra Burke and Cassidy Janson as their love interests –  cope with Chess’ challenging vocals? Do these kings and queens make all the right moves?

Well, some critics think it’s quite tough to tell. Tony Peters (Radio Times, ★★★) complains of “a dodgy sound mix”, Bano moans that “treble-heavy sound makes it difficult to hear what everyone’s singing”, and Taylor notes a sound balance that “makes Rice’s lyrics unintelligible”.

Those that could hear the cast sing, though, are generally pretty impressed. “Ball’s Act I closing song Anthem is a thrilling tour-de-force, as is Howar’s Act II dazzler Pity the Child, while Janson has her moment in the spotlight with Nobody’s Side and Burke with Someone Else’s Story,” relates Shenton.

“Ball is the undisputed star – his Anthem is pure class – while Tom Howar snarls and struts and rattles the rafters with his high notes in the ludicrous Pity the Child,” agrees Jones. “Alexandra Burke has next to nothing to do, but delivers Svetlana’s mournful ballads with due emotion. I’d have liked to have seen more of her. Her duet with a Celine Dion-esque Cassidy Janson, I Know Him So Well, seems to stop time. It’s still a spine-tingler.”

“If you want to hear the show in all its sonic glory,” concludes Matt Wolf (Arts Desk, ★★★), “the Coliseum is the place to go.”

Chess – A wrong move

Michael Ball in Chess at the London Coliseum. Photo: BrinkhoffMogenburg
Michael Ball in Chess Photo: BrinkhoffMogenburg

The show doesn’t have a lot to sing about, then, but it sings it very well nonetheless. What about Laurence Connor’s direction? Does his staging manage to inject some sense into this stalemate?

“Connor’s slack production seems to work on the premise that if there’s enough flashy video you will be too stunned to notice that this is a musical devoid of characterisation with a plot that doesn’t make sense,” says Gardner. “There is also no grasp of the politics of representation: the show is full of national and racial stereotyping, most notably in the Bangkok scene.”

“We’ve got 1980s costumes, 80s politics, really 80s synth sounds, but incredibly up-to-date visual technology,” chimes Bano. “The tiles of the chessboard design are made of LED gauze, showing video broadcast live in ultra HD from cameras on the stage. It’s impressive – and pointless.”

“There’s an animated history of chess,” describes Taylor. “There are cringe-inducing sequences that jocosely play up to cultural stereotypes – drunken Cossack dancing, cheerleading Americans; dirndl-and-lederhosen tourist board stuff in Merano; aerial silk acrobatics and a couple of ladyboys in Bangkok.”

“There are many mysteries on stage,” adds Treneman. “Why does Howar glower at the camera in such a hammy way? Why did that accordion player keep popping up everywhere?”

Some are more positive. “This production has admirable ambition, a couple of spine-tingler moments and enough musical muscle to reach the Coliseum’s august rafters,” writes Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★★), while Stefan Kyriazis (Express, ★★★★) calls it a “bold, brash and brilliant revival” and Swain praises Connor’s “canny staging gambits.”

Most critics tend to disagree, though. “Its predominantly eighties atmosphere sits oddly alongside sharply contemporary projections and video designs,” concludes Hitchings. “The more it strains for emotional intensity, the less it achieves, and it’s rare to see so much talent marshalled in the service of such a piffling idea.”

Chess – Wasn’t it good (oh so good)?

Tim Howar (centre) in Chess. Photo: BrinkhoffMoogenburg

No, it really wasn’t. This revival has a few fans, but in general, the critics can’t look past the show’s insensitivity, it’s incomprehensible plot and Connor’s unnecessarily flashy staging.

The precious few stars that are handed out – two-star ratings abound – are given largely for the incomparable score, which has rarely sounded better than it does here, and for the efforts of Ball, Howar, Burke and Janson. Beyond that, though, it’s all over for Chess. Checkmate.

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