Chess, Coliseum, review, London: It's impossible to take this show as seriously as it takes itself

This new production of the Eighties musical by Tim Rice and ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus is overblown and messy

Paul Taylor
Wednesday 02 May 2018 11:30
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Tim Howar, Michael Ball and Cedric Neal in ‘Chess’
Tim Howar, Michael Ball and Cedric Neal in ‘Chess’

Chess hasn’t been seen in the West End for 32 years but now the brainchild of Tim Rice and ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus is back with a vengeance.

It’s getting the English National Opera musicals treatment in the series (co-produced with the GradeLinnit Company) that has afforded us magical, semi-staged accounts of Sweeney Todd, Sunset Boulevard, and Carousel.

The 60-odd members of the opera house orchestra sit centre stage on a raised platform for Chess. They richly deserve that pride of place. Under the baton of John Rigby, these musicians produce cascades of glorious sound, giving serious heft to the score with its pop anthems, power ballads and nods to everything from Bach to Gilbert and Sullivan. The massed ranks of the chorus blast your head off with their melodic intensity.

News of the ABBA reunion in the recording studio has done nothing to dampen expectation about this revival. So I’m sorry to say that there is much in Laurence Connor’s staging that feels overblown and messy, exposing how it’s impossible to take this show as seriously as it takes itself.

Set in 1981 against the backdrop of the Cold War, Chess looks at how rival grandmasters – one American, one Russian – find themselves at risk of becoming pawns in a propaganda game being played by their governments. A Hungarian refugee, who is the American’s “second”, becomes the apex of a painful love triangle when she switches partners in a story of defection and self-sacrificial return.

It’s an unwieldy mix of romantic angst and geopolitical subterfuge. But the production is in danger of overwhelming what human truth there is in it with a barrage of flashy effects. There are live action video projections on the two giant screens that flank the set with its neon-rimmed scattering of chess squares. Seeing the main characters in constant closeup causes you to reflect on how often the songs have them bawling at each other. It doesn’t help that the sound balance sometimes makes Rice’s lyrics unintelligible.

When the rivals sit down to play, the screens swarm with a montage of news footage about Cold War tensions. There’s an animated history of chess. There are cringe-inducing sequences that jocosely play up to cultural stereotypes – drunken Cossack dancing, cheerleading Americans; dirndl-and-lederhosen tourist board stuff in Merano; aerial silk acrobatics and a couple of ladyboys in Bangkok.

Real humour is thin on the ground in this piece. The principals nonetheless manage to rise above the surrounding portentousness in their best moments. Michael Ball is impressively reserved and troubled as Anatoly Sergievsky, the Russian master, and the stomach lurches as he soars into unfettered feeling in the act one closer “Anthem”. Tim Howar is resoundingly obnoxious as the American master-turned-TV-pundit and he raises the roof with his high-altitude confessional solo, “Pity the Child”.

Alexandra Burke has been given a new song “He is a Man, he is a Child” (from the Swedish-language version) to beef up the underwritten role of the Russian’s discarded wife and her soulful renderings bring a pained authority to this woman’s emotional confusion and she duets plangently with Cassidy Janson as Florence on the classic “I Know Him So Well”. But it’s not exactly a compliment to Connor’s production that it makes you pine a bit for the concert versions of Chess.

Until 2 June (eno.org)

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