Review – Chess, London Coliseum, 26th May 2018

ChessSome shows just stick with you, all your life. My all-time favourite remains A Chorus Line, and I know Mrs Chrisparkle has a very soft spot for the 1980s National Theatre production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, directed by Alan Ayckbourn and starring Michael Gambon. Ah, happy times. But we both have good reason to put Chess up there with our all-time greats. In that magical summer of 1986 when I was courting Miss Duncansby and we had tickets for so many top shows, Chess was the one that knocked all the others into a cocked hat. London ColiseumA cast to die for – Elaine Paige, Murray Head, Tommy Korberg; the directorial genius of Trevor Nunn; and the lavish setting of the Prince Edward Theatre. In later years, we saw Craig Revel Horwood’s thoroughly disappointing production in 2011, and tend to put it out of our mind when we think of the show in general. So now it was a chance truly to relive our youth and see Chess again in another magnificent setting, with another great cast – you could say, we were really excited.

Chess 1I don’t think I’ve ever paid so much money for a pair of theatre tickets. At £150 each plus booking fee, we worked out that it was about £1 each for every minute. Can any production really be worth that level of investment from a theatregoer? Answer: yes. We both felt that our £150 was great value for what we saw. An incredible multimedia presentation; the sumptuous sounds of the full English National Opera orchestra and chorus; a fabulous cast; and an amazing view from terrific seats. We were well happy with our investment.

Chess 8It’s true that the storyline is slight and the book itself is even slighter. Intemperate American chess champion and showbiz star Freddie Trumper arrives in Merano (where?) to defend his title against the cool, calm Anatoly Sergievsky. Having left his wife and child behind in Mother Russia, Sergievsky falls in love with Florence, the head of the American delegation. Meanwhile Trumper loses both his head and the championship; Sergievsky doesn’t return to the Soviet Union but seeks political asylum in Britain; and both Trumper and Sergievksy meet again in Bangkok for another championship, this time with Trumper commentating for American TV. Does Sergievsky leave his wife and son for Florence? Or does he return home like a good Soviet? Was Florence’s father killed in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution? Does Trumper come to his senses? Chess 6Do we care? Absolutely not. But that’s the strange thing about this show; we don’t particularly care about what happens to the characters. We do, however, care about the songs, and how the performers bring them to life for a new generation of Chess-appreciators.

The staging simply takes your breath away. What appears to be a black backdrop, with various illuminated chessboard squares scattered, as in the famous design logo that has accompanied this show since its conception, is in fact a myriad of LED/projection screens. These display both detailed and frequently exhilarating background scenery – the airplane landing at Merano, or the traditional dragon dance in Bangkok spring to mind – and close-ups (and I do mean close-up) of the cast on stage as they are constantly filmed by cameramen during the show. There is no hiding place whilst those cameramen are out and about.Chess 3 On paper this may sound intrusive or over-the-top but in reality it gives the audience a much closer involvement with what’s going on, that it renders the vast Coliseum auditorium and stage as intimate as a studio theatre; so effective an illusion that you can observe the concentration and characterisations of the actors at close hand. It works incredibly well and absolutely takes your breath away. I was totally gripped by it from the start.

Chess 7Then of course you have the orchestra! Partially hidden behind the screens, they really give the show power and depth; Bjorn and Benny’s incredible score has never sounded so lush and majestic. The Chorus also lends another aspect; whilst they augment the sound splendidly, and the vocal fullness again lends depth and vigour to the performance, it wasn’t always possible to hear precisely every word. Fortunately, and with every respect to Sir Tim Rice, you don’t really come to see Chess for the lyrics – not in the big choral numbers at least. Don’t get me wrong, some of them are great. Others… just aren’t. But it really doesn’t matter!

Chess 2As for the performances, they all irradiate power and authority exactly as you would expect; and each of the characters/performers has at least his one big moment where they bring us to our knees in awe. Michael Ball nails the Anthem, just before the interval, with an absolutely magnificent performance which gives your goosebumps goosebumps. Alexandra Burke and Cassidy Janson elevate I Know Him So Well to a higher plane, with Ms Burke in a TV studio on ground level and Ms Janson atop a bridge overlooking the stage, but captured by the cameramen on the side screens so that their images blend with each other, each looking in different directions; a simple ploy, but so effective. Tim Howar gets more raw emotion out of Pity the ChildChess 5 than I would have thought was possible; it’s like watching a man clinging on to the wreckage, yet not quite totally disintegrating on stage. (OK, Sir Tim, fair do’s, that is one helluva lyric.) Phillip Browne as Molokov rules the roost with the terrific Cossack-style The Soviet Machine, and Cedric Neal is a revelation as the charismatic, dictatorial Arbiter, showing off sensationally in The Arbiter. All this, plus superb renditions of Where I Want to Be, Nobody’s Child and One Night in Bangkok, and I was beaming from ear to ear for the entire afternoon. There was no hesitation anywhere in the audience that this performance was fully deserving of a standing ovation for each and every one of the cast.

Chess 4I’m aware that the production received many rather poor reviews when it opened, so all I can say is they must have worked the hell out of it to bring it up to the standard it was last Saturday afternoon. We loved it; and the buzz in the theatre made it clear that everyone else loved it too. If it wasn’t restricted to a very short run we’d definitely go back again for more – even at those high prices. Possibly the most extravagant production of a musical I’ve ever seen; and that extravagance hits the mark perfectly – it doesn’t strangle it, it enhances it. Total bliss.

Production photos by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Review – Candide, Menier Chocolate Factory, 21st December 2013

CandideOnce again the Menier proves itself to be the most versatile of spaces. When you descend the steps to the auditorium you never know whether you’ll be walking left, right or straight on; seated in front of a traditional stage or in the round or in traverse; with acting areas just in front of you or all around you. If you’re a regular attendee at the Menier there’s a particular thrill you get when you enter the auditorium just to see how they’ve jiggled it all around this time.

Fra FeeFor this lively production of Candide, the Scottish Opera version of 1988 (the programme gives you a good history of the various different stages this show has endured over the ages), our arrival is greeted with garlands and pendants surrounding a central square area to suggest an eighteenth century fête. The seats are partly recovered with colourful glittery material (not overly comfortable to be honest!) and the whole place has the feeling of middle Europe celebration. We are in Westphalia, which I always thought was as imaginary as Ruritania, but is apparently an area of north-west Germany. But not for long, as jolly musical number after jolly musical number takes us on a tour of Europe, then (after the interval) South America, stopping by at Surinam before our finale in Venice.

Scarlett StrallenCandide is, of course, probably the best known work of Voltaire, and a copy of it has sat on my bookshelf since 1979, when I bought it because I thought it was something “I Ought To Read”. I regret that, to this date, it retains the same status. It’s a kind of semi-picaresque story where our eponymous hero follows his fortune all around the world, he and his circle getting into the most ridiculous scrapes that would prove fatal for the rest of us, but he (and they) nevertheless bounce back time after time again, smelling of roses and playing the national anthem on a penny whistle (figuratively speaking). Voltaire’s main task is to satirise the “this is the best of all possible worlds” philosophy of the tutor Pangloss, of whom and of which Candide is a devotee, and to highlight the resilience of human nature as literally nothing seems to damage the indomitable spirit (and indeed unbreakable bodies) of Candide and his pals. In that respect, the show is very faithful to the book, (as far as I can make out without having read it) with its pacey progress through a whirlwind of globetrotting adventure. I think its pace is vital to the success of the show; if it were to get ponderous you’d start thinking too deeply about its nonsensical coincidences and Lazarus-like risings from the dead, and that would probably spoil it. With Cunégonde, Maximilian and Parquette constantly re-appearing, Mrs Chrisparkle was reminded of Nicholas Nickleby’s happy-ending Romeo and Juliet, where everyone bounded back to life at the end because they didn’t take the poison or the sword wound was just a scratch. Except for poor Tybalt, of course.

James DreyfusI mentioned the jolly songs; to be fair, not all the songs are jolly. For every two or three jolly songs, I’d say, you get a sincere and meaningful ballad sung by Candide. I don’t mean to pick a fight with Leonard Bernstein over his score. It starts off very promisingly with the well-known overture that most orchestras like to include in their more upbeat classical concerts; it goes on to include a few witty patter songs, and some wonderful juxtaposition of comedy with tragedy, as in the blissful “Auto da fe” where members of society have a great time watching the Spanish Inquisition at work; and it also has some stand-out individual moments, such as Cunégonde’s Glitter and Be Gay (like an eighteenth century version of Madonna’s Material Girl) and the Old Lady’s “I am easily assimilated”. You can also see the expert hand of Adam Cooper at work with the choreography in some of the bigger numbers, enabling grand dance gestures to develop in the small space available to fantastic effect. However, I did find that whenever the character of Candide felt the urge to sing something sincere about love or his lot in life, the songs got a bit, well, boring. Sorry. No one’s fault except Bernstein’s, or possibly whichever of the wide choice of lyricists credited to this show might be responsible for the words in those particular songs.

Jackie CluneThe only other slight quibble I have with this production is the decision to have some of the action take place on what is effectively a narrow balcony that goes all the way around the back of the auditorium behind the back row of seats, means that no seat actually has an unobstructed view of all the action. We sat in row A, as we always do, because I like to get as close as possible to the action, but it meant that several times we had to turn around to see what was going on behind us, or, when that got a bit uncomfortable, just go into “radio” mode for a few minutes and listen to, rather than watch, the show progress. For this production, the back row probably gives you the best view of all. Mind you, I’m not complaining about being close to the action. When the characters were introduced to us in the opening song, to illustrate how friendly the lovely Paquette could be with gentlemen, she decided to perch upon my lap and give me a smile and a cuddle. That was nice. I gave her a smile and a squeeze back, and gently inclined my head towards her ample bosom. It was only later on I discovered that Paquette was riddled with syphilis. Thanks a lot Paquette, how am I going to explain that to Mrs C? Actually there were a number of very amusing moments when certain members of the audience were given little tasks. One gentleman became the King of the Bulgars; the lady on the other side of the aisle from me ended up holding the gondolier’s paddle, which was bigger than both of them. Such little tricks all help to keep you involved in the show.

David ThaxtonAs always at the Menier, it’s a company jam-packed with talent and style. Fra Fee (with possibly the shortest name in showbusiness) is perfect in the role of Candide, all wide-eyed innocence and open-hearted good nature. He’s like an Everyman figure into whom the rest of the world collides as he makes his merry way through life; and even if I did find some of his songs a little boring, he has a fine singing voice with perfect clarity and expression. The love of his life, Cunégonde, is played by Scarlett Strallen, fresh from her amazing performance as Cassie in A Chorus Line, and her singing and stage presence are just stunning. She stops the show with her fantastic coloratura in Glitter and Be Gay and conveys both the comedy and the tragedy of the role beautifully.

Ben LewisI was really impressed with the performance of James Dreyfus as Pangloss (and Cacambo, and Martin) – he too has a great voice, a fantastic command of the stage and a natural feel for comedy. The other really superb performance comes from Jackie Clune (great as Billy Elliot’s mum a few years back) as the Old Lady – much fun to be made by the fact she has no other name – who sings fantastically and gives us very funny physical comedy with coping with just one buttock (you’ll have to see the show for more information). If you’re in the front row you might have a very amusing conversation with her just after the interval as she wanders on and starts moaning about the fact that she’s not playing Cunégonde; “what’s the fuss? It’s only a D sharp”. The rest of the cast give tremendous support, with Cassidy Janson a beautiful and mischievous Paquette, David Thaxton a delightfully pompous Maximilian, and Michael Cahill and Ben Lewis taking on eight roles between them, each with their own strong identity and great comic timing.

A perfect choice for a festive season show, full of feel-good factor and a great sense of fun. Fantastic costumes, a great band and some superb performances. Definitely not to be missed!