Chess is never just chess in Chess the musical. It’s the Cold War, a lovers’ battlefield, a competition for status where ‘no one is completely by your side’. And as analogies go, it’s pretty strong. There’s plenty for a writing team to get their teeth into, especially a golden team that’s Benny Andersson, Tim Rice and Björn Ulvaeus. Yes, it might be a little strange to set a romantic thriller in the world of championship chess. But this is musical theatre, where strange associations can bloom. And yes, it’s semi-staged but the cast and creative team are as good as you could wish for. This should be a West End revival that’s played all the right moves. Should be.
The opening is gorgeous: a full orchestra are almost revealed, playing lush strings, echoes of Shostakovich. With song number 1 – ‘The Story of Chess’ – we’re immediately aware of the show’s ambitions, to be something different. But it’s soon after this that we’re also made aware of the screens. Or rather, the panels that provide ample face space on either side of the orchestra as cameras zoom in for close-ups on the earnest performers. And a central screen that rises and falls to bring the live music into focus. They seem like a smart idea until it becomes clear that they will be much in use, to help us enjoy the players’ faces in beautifully-lit glory. After a few songs, the view on the screens pulls the eyes away from the stage below. Live theatre becomes cinematic.
This might have been fine had this creative choice not been paired with a similar approach to volume. In a show that’s fond of turning many songs up to 11, the decision to amplify often results in arresting melodies that soon feel more like attack. Grand, lush, enjoyably bombastic. But also overwhelming and an obstacle to feeling much for the giant faces of the main players. Even fine-voiced players like Ball, Burke and Janson.
“If you listen to it, the music is not about politics. It’s a love story.” So says Benny Andersson. I agree. It’s where we naturally want to lend our ears: the lovers’ hearts. However, to care for these hearts, we need time and space, especially in this gaudy 80s world of ambition. We can blame the screens and speakers for the distance but there’s also a problem in the book’s protagonists: it’s hard to feel much for a man who walks out on his wife and child, and an ambitious man-child fond of tantrums. Even the act 2 ‘Pity The Child’ can’t quite reach us, as it turns up the volume once more. ‘I Know Him So Well’ suffered similarly: a beautifully crafted duet that was beautifully delivered. But the screens. The screens …
Okay, screens and sound aside, there’s still a lot to like even if there’s little to love. The vocals are strong from everyone, although most lungs are set to full-belt for the majority of the show. Stephen Mear’s choreography has its inventive moments that pull your eye from those huge TVs, even if it’s all a bit lost in the mix. And Michael Ball’s well-known baritone is a rolling, soaring relief from the more urgent power ballads.
The music that accompanies the two chess match scenes is also beautiful. And, accompanied by news footage on those ever-present screens, it keeps us alert to the wider world stakes. But I couldn’t help feeling it was still just a chess match. The drama just a game. And the story almost halting to ponder over close-ups.
So what made a show with such calibre struggle to capture my heart? Coco Chanel once advised to take a look in the mirror before leaving home. And to take one thing off. Here, we have a production that looked in the mirror and rushed right back to the jewellery box. We get brilliance and a kind of neon glitter. We get full throttle presentation all the way through. We get shine standing in the way of its substance.
Take away those distracting screens, with their X-Factor/Eurovision vibe, and I might have been convinced, moved, made to care. Or maybe if they’d simply turned the whole thing down a notch. As it was, I felt constantly distant from a difficult and dated book.
I wanted to love this. And I’m sure many will. But it wasn’t for me. I’ll stick to listening, and enjoying, the live concert recording from 2008.
Cast: Michael Ball, Alexandra Burke, Tim Howar, Cassidy Janson, Cedric Neal Director: Laurence Connor Writers: Benny Andersson, Tim Rice, Björn Ulvaeus Theatre: London Coliseum Duration: 2 hours 45 mins Performance dates: 28th April – 2nd June 2018