Lordy, Lordy, Lordy… Are there issues with this revival of Chess or what? In fact, there’s so many it’s hard to know where to begin. But let’s start with the positives.
I love Chess; no, seriously. It’s the show that made me fall in love with musicals after a childhood raised on nauseous shows from Lloyd Webber and saccharine films such as Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. In the 1980s, its soundtrack dominated the mainstream pop charts, not just a score confined to more niche audiences – a success no doubt largely due to the ABBA writers Bjorn and Benny. I Know Him So Well remains a masterpiece and Nobody’s Side holds a very special place in my heart.
But, herein lies the problem too for Chess is a story and production very much of its time. Centred around a fictional East-West chess match between American rebel, Freddie (Tim Howar), and his severe and sober Russian counterpart, Anatoly (Michael Ball). It’s a supposedly high stakes match in terms of national pride, sucked in as it is into the wider Cold War between these two adversaries, and the title is meant to be both a reference to the match but also the extent to which the protagonists become little more than pawns in a far wider game.
The show therefore brims with 80s nostalgia from its electronica sound to its Cold War setting so contemporary relevance is a challenge, as is much else with this musical: its book is pretty much non-existent, the characters we’re presented with are superficial and shallow, and such is the whippet-pace of the show that it’s impossible to get any sense of dramatic arc or feel any emotional connection with any of the characters.
Now, these are profound issues for any production but it’s far to say that not only does this revival from Michael Linnit and Michael Grade, in collaboration with the ENO, fail to address these, it actually makes the situation worse with some awfully tone-deaf representations.
What it does get (largely) right is its production design from Matt Kinley and Terry Scruby. In fact, you get the feeling that a lot of money must have been thrown at this element, if only to detract from failings elsewhere! But the results are fantastic, it must be said.
The chess board theme smothers the stage in accentuated Malevich-esque black squares with sharp neon-white outlines, and the LED screen backdrop would not have been out of place at a rock concert. In fact, it was Madonna’s Confessions tour that sprung to my mind during a key scene where, as the men play chess, news footage of bombs, wars, Reagan and space races flashed across the big screens. Madge, you see, did the very same thing in her tour – only she was singing Sorry, not playing a board game.
Such an approach may be the best way to try and evoke the tensions of the Cold War in the 1980s, especially to new audiences to whom this whole era feels like a dusty piece of history already, but it does expose the fact that it is impossible to try to switch up location and period to make it more relevant as the 1980s is what this show is about in every way. And that in turn brings up issues with elements of its production.
I knew we were going to be struggling with appropriateness and representation with the second musical number of the show, Merano, where the chorus were dressed in stereotypical lederhosen and milkmaid outfits to make it quite clear that we are in the Alps. The cartoonish depiction of Russians as programmed robots wasn’t an auspicious sign either.
But not even I was quite prepared for the awfulness of One Night in Bangkok (a track that has to be treated pretty carefully these days) which saw the white women dancers donning black wigs to make them look like Thai sex workers, and a couple of the white male dancers put into spangly dresses to represent ladyboys. Then there were the heavily kohled temple dancers…
Yowch!! I mean, please, someone needs to have a word with the creatives. Though it does bring into sharp focus the ongoing issues in our industry, especially when only the night before I was enjoying the sight of a diverse audiences and creatives at Nine Night. This was a sobering return to the state of play, to reality, in British theatre.
And all this is compounded with technical points such as muffled sound often making it impossible to clearly hear the lyrics, and a couple of disappointing performances: Michael Ball is not convincing as Anatoly, noticeably given up on his work-shopped accent about five minutes in. And, sadly, Cassidy Janson’s voice seemed under strain as Florence, a member of the American team who falls in love with Anatoly. Whether the range of her songs was too much for her, or whether she was just having an off night, it was hard to tell.
Indeed, it is Alexandra Burke whose star shines brightest in this production. She oozes charisma and presence and it’s such a damn shame she was cast as Svetlana, Anatoly’s wronged wife, rather than his lover, Florence, as what I would have given to hear Burko take on Nobody’s Side. At least she comes out of this show with her reputation not just intact but further enhanced.
London Coliseum to June 2, 2018.
Tickets from £5.
All production images by BrinkhoffMogenburg.