Some 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. A 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.
I 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.
It’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? Do 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. 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.
Then 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!
As 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 Child 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.
I’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