There are as many permutations of Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus’ Cold War metaphor musical as there are moves in chess. Since its West End debut in 1986, the show has been twisted and gutted, reshaped and rewritten over again.
The attempts to get it right are understandable. Despite 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, Chess is still one of the musical theatre greats.
The Bs from ABBA plus Tim Rice wrote some of their best work here, and it’s long been ripe for a thoughtful revival, one that really grapples with anxieties about the Cold War redivivus.
Instead, there’s this and it’s a mess. With its star names – Michael Ball, Alexandra Burke, Cassidy Janson – the latest in Michael Grade and Michael Linnit’s now annual musical offering at the Coliseum is flashy. But all the flash in the world can’t hide the muddle of its concept and execution.
We’ve got 1980s costumes, 80s politics, really 80s synth sounds, but incredibly up-to-date visual technology. 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. The treble-heavy sound makes it difficult to hear what everyone’s singing, and the songs are taken at a real nip, which doesn’t help. Still, everything is beautifully lit by Patrick Woodroffe, in fact lit doubly for the stage and for the screen.
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.
All the principal cast wobble through a ropey first act, with a few high notes that just won’t come out however hard they shriek (and they do shriek). But thank god for Act II. They all settle, particularly Tim Howar’s Freddie who belts out the ridiculously high Pity the Child very well. Ball is mostly on form as severe Russian Anatoly, but he mistakes insistent rubato for emotion. His Act One closer Anthem is the first moment when the show hits its stride.
Even the usually excellent Cassidy Janson sounds a bit out of her depth here, with a messy Nobody’s Side. The only consistently decent performance is from Alexandra Burke as Svetlana, although she barely features in Act I and has a supplementary song to give her more to do – He Is A Man, He Is A Child from a 2002 depoliticised Swedish-language version of the show.
Minute glimpses of humour suggest that the production knows how ridiculous it is. But they evaporate, and we’re left with this lumbering, wobbling behemoth. It’s a gross disservice to a great musical. At least we’ve got the ABBA reunion and Mamma Mia 2 to look forward to.