Milton Keynes Theatre
25 January 2011
Chess not stale, mate. Yet!
Before I start, I just want to explain the 19 month gap in proceedings! The arrival of Forest Chick last February and the 8-9 months before that meant that I have been virtually nowhere or done anything and – what I have done, I haven’t had time to write about!
But now – I’m back! And here’s my first offering since “Never Forget” in June 2009 – a production that I felt sick throughout, and only realised why a week later!
Chess is one of those shows where you have to separate your thoughts about the actual production with your thoughts about the story / concept.
With lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson of ABBA fame, this touring production directed and choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood, looks great, is stylish, has a handful of good songs and very strong performances – but the show itself – well, frankly it’s a bit tedious. I thought that the game of chess was an odd choice for a musical when I first saw it 20-odd years ago and my perception hasn’t really changed.
I’m pretty sure that the game is somehow used as a metaphor for life, about strategies and how one action can affect another but to be honest I wasn’t inspired to consider this like I would an Ibsen, because I didn’t really care!
The Cold War element that was in recent history in the early 80s seemed to be really played down in favour of the love story.
It’s not until about 15 minutes before the interval that the love triangle angle emerges (always a winner!) so before that I was beginning to think that another game might have provided more interest and tension – Buckeroo perhaps!
Nevertheless, because I wasn’t interested in the story for the first hour, I was able to concentrate on the staging which I loved.
It’s all black and white (obv really!) but the costumes and feel are like a cross between Kafka and Tim Burton and are in a bondage type style which I felt updated the 80s musical well, as did the video wall which helps to set the location for each scene. (Or you can look in the programme!)
The performers also play all the instruments as well, something which always fascinates me, and rather than this looking clumsy, which it can do sometimes, it is seamless.
You can definitely hear the ABBA influence throughout, especially as some of it could be Eurovision material, but the handful of good songs really are good – “Anthem”, “Pity The Child”, “Heaven Help My Heart”, “Nobody’s Side” and the most famous, “I Know Him So Well”. The rest is more operatic than rock musical so if that’s your bag, you’ll love it!
There are some very strong performances by the principle characters, with the actors all being solid and experienced performers rather than big names who can’t cut it.
James Fox was excellent in the role of Freddy Trumper, and his performance of “Pity The Child” nearly took the roof off, as did Daniel Koek’s rendition of “Anthem”.
He has an amazing voice and is much better suited to playing Anatoly, a Russian chess player than he was when he played Tony in West Side Story where, if I remember correctly, I described him as being a bit like a school teacher.
Shona White who plays Elaine Paige – sorry, Florence - also had a voice that travelled to my very core.
Luckily the voices deflected from the story – maybe I over analyse things too much but Florence seemed to bin Freddie for Anatoly rather TOO quickly! And personally - I would have stuck with Freddie!
The rest of the cast all provided excellent support although I was a little disappointed that in some of the ensemble numbers I couldn’t always hear the words, which kind of spoiled my main sport in a Tim Rice musical, which is spotting the unfeasible lyrics. But luckily I picked out his rhyming of “consul” with “response’ll” which made my evening!
This is production proves that the show isn’t stale – but could probably be an hour shorter!
But – while I have mixed feelings about the show, whatever I saw on the stage, it was really nice to be out!