'Chess The Musical' makes a winning move

Tim Howar, Michael Ball and Cedric Neal Photography BrinkhoffMögenburg.JPG

It’s been over 30 years since ‘Chess The Musical’ last ran in the West End.  Now for a limited 5 week run, this powerhouse of a show has returned to the Coliseum.  

Written by Tim Rice and Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA fame, the show features such classics as ‘I Know Him So Well’ and ‘One Night in Bangkok’.

Set against the Cold War, its a timely revival given the recent East / West tensions.  And with the news on an ABBA reunion, a chance to bask in the glory of Benny and Bjorn’s epic songwriting.

The show often suffers a bad image.  After all who wants to go and see a musical about a chess game?  But it is so much more than that and if you base your decision on the title alone then you are really missing out on one of the greatest musical scores.

It is a love story not unlike ‘Romeo & Juliet’.  Two star crossed lovers from opposing sides who cannot be with one another for fear of recrimination.  Chess is the setting but also the metaphor. From the moves lovers make to woo their partners to the moves that politicians and countries will take in order to reign supreme.

It's a definitive mark of the greatness of the story and music, that this revival has attracted a stellar cast.  Michael Ball plays The Russian, Anatoly; Alexandra Burke as his wife Svetlana; Tim Howar as The American, Freddie and Cassidy Janson as Florence, his No.2.

Michael Ball Photography BrinkhoffMögenburg.JPG

To see Michael Ball perform ‘Anthem’ is worth the ticket price alone.  He delivers the performance of his career and proves that like fine wine, his voice has matured perfectly.  Cassidy Janson has tough shoes to fill taking on the part of Florence, originally played by Elaine Paige. By any standards, it’s a tough score to sing but Janson gives it her all with ‘Nobody’s Side’ and the lovers parting ballad ‘You and I’.  

In terms of the production itself, Matt Kinley’s set design brings this 80’s setting bang up to date with his use of screens and cameras as seen to great effect in ‘Network’ at the National earlier this year.  In the grand setting of The Coliseum it helps give everyone a clear view of the action.  It's a technique which can been seen at its best during songs like ‘I Know Him So Well’ which is cleverly set with Florence watching Svetlana on a TV chat show.  Yet on some of the more intimate moments of the show like ‘Pity the Child’, it proved distracting and takes away from the performance of the performer. Used more sparingly, it would have certainly been of greater effect.  

Tim Howar and company Photography BrinkhoffMögenburg.JPG


Added to this mix is Stephen Mears’ choreography which cleverly packs a punch on numbers such as ‘Merano’ and ‘Embassy Lament’ but sadly the biggest production number of the show ‘One Night in Bangkok’ felt messy to watch.

There is no denial that star of the show is the English National Opera’s award-winning Orchestra and Chorus. Numbers like ‘Chess’ and ‘Endgame’ envelopes the audience and squeezes out an emotional response.

‘Chess The Musical’ is a rare treat of a show. From its synthesized score to its super stylised design. For me, musicals have to be about a good story set to music as opposed to music set to a good story.  And this delivers perfectly proving why this notably revived classic, deserves its current West End run.

Chess The Musical runs at ENO Coliseum until 2nd June