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A CurtainUp London Review

"Everybody's playing the game but nobody's rules are the same." — Lyric from Nobody's Side
Tim Howar as Freddie Trumper and Michael Ball as Anatoly Sergievsky (Photo: BrinkhoffMogenburg)
With signs that the Cold War may be on its way back, Tim Rice, Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus's musical Chess gets a new production at the English National Opera. Chess was written in the 1980s and ran for three years from 1986 in the West End, and uses the Grand Master Chess contests as a metaphor for the East-West divide. With the current state of play between Britain and Russia you could be excused for thinking that a Russian Chess defector would be bumped off either by polonium from an umbrella or by a nerve gas but as you will see, Anatoly Sergievsky (Michael Ball) lives to play another round.

Richard Nelson is credited with the book, but the original idea was Tim Rice's on this, his initial collaboration away from Andrew Lloyd-Webber. The first impression is the 72 strong orchestra and the wonderful orchestrals for the overture. This strength turns to a weakness in sound balance when we are unable to hear Tim Rice's lyrics over the orchestra.

Matt Kinley's set design is based on a deconstructed Chess board with black and white and tumbling blocks spilling onto the sides of the set. As the orchestra plays the overture, the flags of the then USSR and the USA are raised over the stage. Two huge screens at either side are ready to play close ups of those singing or in the first number, "The Story of Chess", a history of the origins of the game illustrated by shadow puppets, like those from Indonesia.

The first contest between the American Freddie Trumper (Tim Howar) and Anatoly is set in Merano, in the Italian Tyrol, where the contestants are greeted with steins of beer and dancers in traditional costume. But first Anatoly has to say goodbye to his wife Svetlana (Alexandra Burke) and their son Ivan (Cody Molko/Nicholas Antoniou-Tibbitts). The two seconds are Hungarian born Florence Vassy (Cassidy Janson) for Trumper and Molokov (Philip Browne's wonderful bass register) for the Russian.

Stephen Mears' choreography is a joy, from the Tyrolean dancers to the Russians with Cossack jumps, American cheerleaders and, the highlight, in Bankok, all the elements that we associate with Thailand and a city of bars and available women, even though some of them may be Ladyboys, and complete with the acrobats who hang on silk banners. The British Embassy defection scene has predictable bowler hats and brollies.

The visuals take us through a history of the competition for the first man in space, the first man in the moon showing old news footage on the long standing rivalry between the Americans and the Russians culminating in the USA not participating in the Moscow Olympics. We hear Anatoly's concerns about Freddie Trumper, his unconventional and unpredictable play but Trumper walks out of a meeting leaving Florence to meet with Anatoly and fall for each other and Anatoly defects to the West.

The Second Act opens with Svetlana's new song "He Is A Man, He Is A Child" as she sings about her husband who has deserted her before changing scene to the excesses of Bankok for another chess match. The Russians, a curiously all male contingent, dance to "The Soviet Machine" but then we return to the women in the famous song from the show, "I Know Him So Well". In order to persuade Anatoly to go back to Russia, Florence's Hungarian father who has been missing is discovered living in Russia and his release is why Anatoly agrees to go back.

Michael Ball is an excellent singer but in this day and age, a man working two women won't get a lot of sympathy. Tim Howar's Trumper does a lot of side looks to emphasize his mean character and I liked his voice. Philip Browne's Russian villain Molokov is a strong deep voiced performance. I didn't think that either Cassidy Janson or Alexandra Burke were outstanding and in fact I found Burke a tad shouty.

The plot is no worse that many musicals but the problem for me was the video screens of the one singer, two huge profiles and a diminutive full face in the middle of the actual singer. I think the giant video interferes with the credibility of the actor singers, using concert visuals, and a lack of credibility means we cannot care about the characters and if we don't care, all that is left is lush orchestrations.
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Story of Chess
  • Merano
  • Where I Want to Be
  • The Arbiter
  • Hymn to Chess
  • A Model of Decorum
  • Nobody's Side
  • Der Kleine Franz
  • Mountain Duet
  • Someone Else's Story
  • Embassy Lament
  • Anthem
Act Two
  • He Is A Man, He Is A Child
  • One Night in Bankok
  • Heaven Help My Heart
  • The Soviet Machine
  • I Know Him So Well
  • The Deal
  • Pity the Child
  • Endgame
  • You and I

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Music by Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Richard Nelson
Directed by Laurence Connor
Starring: Michael Ball, Tim Howard, Philip Browne, Alexandra Burke, Cassidy Janson, Cedric Neal
With: Sabrina Aloueche, Robin Bailey, Sarah Bakker, Jeremy Batt, Kimberley Blake, Sophie Camble, Cellen Chugg Jones, Jordan Lee Davies, Jonathan David Dudley, Richard Emerson, Chris Gage, Matt Harrop, Jack Horner, Stevie Hutchinson, Nicholas Li, Sinead Long, Robbie McMillan, Jo Morris, Jo Servi, Alexandra Waite-Roberts, Carrie Willis, Stuart Winter
Choreographer: Stephen Mears
Set Design: Matt Kinley
Costume Design: Christina Cunningham
Video Designer: Terry Scruby
Musical Director: Ben Atkinson
Musical Supervisor, original orchestrations and arrangements: Anders Eljas
Conductor: John Rigby
Sound Design: Mick Potter
Lighting Design: Patrick Woodroffe
Running time: Two hours 40 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7845 9300
Booking to 2nd June 2018
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on Ist May 2018 performance at the London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane London WC2N 4ES (Rail/Tube: Charing Cross)
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