Robert Tanitch reviews Chess at London Coliseum
The London Coliseum, home of English National Opera, has also been the home of musicals and visiting international ballets for a very long time. And before that, way back, when it first opened in 1904, it was a variety theatre.
The most recent musicals have been concert performances of Sweeney Todd, Sunset Boulevard and Carousel.
Now it’s the turn of Chess, the Benny Andersson, Tim Rice and Bjorn Ulvaeus musical, not seen in the West End for 23 years; and so something of an occasion. ABBA fans will be in high heaven.
The story is set during the Cold War when the Soviet Union and the USA were playing political games. The musical was in fact publicized as a Cold War confrontation.
Chess was inspired by “the match of the century” between challenger Bobby Fischer of the US and defending champion Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union in Reykjavik in 1972.
There have been many versions of the musical since 1986 and none of them has got it right. The book is still a bit of a mess and the love interest never really interests.
It is a pity, too, that the sound here is so over-amplified that it is rarely possible to hear Tim Rice’s lyrics.
A great deal of money has been spent on Laurence Connor’s lively and busy production. Matt Kinley’s set gives the production a bright, smart, black and white checkerboard look on floor and sides. The squares light up. There is plenty of video footage.
Stephen Mear’s dance satires on Austrians in lederhosen, Bangkok traditional dancers, drunken Cossacks and City of London Brits with rolled umbrellas are tired revue joke clichés.
The production has the major benefit of ENO’s orchestra and chorus and they do justice to Anders Eljas’s rich orchestrations. The orchestra, conducted by John Rigby, is on stage, behind and above the cast.
There is a strong cast and strong performances, particularly by Tim Howar as the American grandmaster. Michael Ball is the Soviet grandmaster. Cedric Neal is the Arbiter.
High spots include Ball singing Anthem, a terrific climax for the first act, and Howar singing One Night in Bangkok and also, with tremendous emotion, Pity the Child.
Other high spots include Cassidy Janson singing Nobody’s on Nobody’s Side, Alexandra Burke singing He is a Man, He is a Child and also Janson and Burke singing I Know Him So Well.
A key feature of the production is that a cameraman is on stage with handheld camera filming the individual singers as they sing and the image is instantly projected either side of the stage so the audience can see the face in huge close-up.