Musical makes all the right moves

Musical pieces: Twenty five of the cast of 30 were not only actors and singers but played musical instruments as a very fine orchestra. Pictures: Keith Pattison

Chess The Musical

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

TAKE a much under-rated musical, hand it to a gifted choreographer and director and the result is a piece of theatrical magic.

Craid Revel Horwood's version of Chess has been moving from square to square around the country since autumn on a 10 month run, playing to packed houses and critical acclaim and it is easy to see why. It really would be a shame if there was no West End run to follow.

The original is 25 years old this year and its subjects are hardly front page news these days. The Cold War ended 20 years ago while chess now vies with knockout whist for TV coverage.

Back in the 70s and 80s though - the musical is set in 1979 - and the USA and USSR turned everything into a propaganda war, including chess. By one of those quirks of fate the brilliant American Bobby Fischer was the challenger for the world title held by the Russian Boris Spassky in what was to become the most famous chess match of all time held in Reykjavík in 1972. Anyone remember the last chess match they heard about?

Under the direction of Revel Horwood though the musical is vibrant, alive and appears remarkably modern and fresh.  

Florence Vassy (Shona White) with the two men in her life, Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Daniel Koek) left and American Freddie Trumper (James Fox) 

It is also hard work with 25 of the 30 strong cast doubling up as the orchestra carrying their instruments around with them – only the pianist and drummer are spared that, purely from a practical point of view.

They move around a set which comprises of a giant chess board in front of a huge video screen which provides not only visuals and colour to the black and white costume but shows live video of TV broadcasts as they happen on stage along with live action interviews - filmed incidentally by a camera on the end of a trumpet if the BBC are looking to make savings . . .

Apart from the excellent orchestra-come-chorus-come everyone else, the headliners add greatly to the production. A weak link there and the whole show would be struggling. Pawns set up games but it is the main pieces that win them.

American David Erik as the moderator brings a presence to the proceedings while the Russian second, Alexander Molokov, Steve Varnom, has a rich baritone and an operatic manner as well as a nice line in subterfuge with US TV executive Walter De Courcey played by James Graeme in what is thinly disguised dealing between KGB and CIA.

The heavyweights in this though are the excellent James Fox as the infuriating, self-centred, brash Frederick Trumper, the US world champion  and the reserved Russian Challenger Anatoly Sergievsky played by Australian Daniel Koek who has a voice to die for.

In the good against evil battle of the cold war, the Free World against Communists, we should be cheering for Trumper against the Rusky . . . except the American is hardly likeable while the Russian seems a good guy which probably does not feel as strange now as it did back in 1986 when nuclear attack from the East was still a fear.

Between the chess masters  is Florence, Trumper's second and lover played by Shona White who falls for Anatoly becoming his second and lover by the next world championship.

Svetlana, wife of Anatoly, flown in to help . . . or disrupt . . . his world title hopes.

But into the mix, courtesy of the KGB and CIA comes Anatoly's wife, Svetlana, played by Poppy Tierney, who was left behind in Russia, and, adding more bargaining power to help fix a result, comes the news  that Florence's father is alive in a Russian jail after she thought he died in the 1956 Hungary uprising.

A love triangle becomes a love and politics quadrangle with the USA and Russia using the combatants as pawns in their own games to gain a propaganda advantage.

With the book and lyrics by Tim Rice and music and songs by Abba's Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson it is no surprise the show is packed with memorable songs all well sung with Anatoly's bitter sweet Anthem and Trumper's poignant Pity the Child among the highlights while Florence and Svetlana really brought the Abbaesque  I know him so well  to life. This was the No 1 hit single from the concept album which came out a year before the show.

All four have voices made for musical theatre, with Shona White and Daniel Koek magnificent, and with a score as lavish and technically accomplished as this everyone has  a chance to shine. There are complex choral numbers, duets, operatic vocal battles and some very fine numbers in what is a very sophisticated and classy rock musical.

 Sadly, on opening night the sound was not quite there in the first half – an occupational hazard of opening in a theatre new to cast and crew - but a few tweaks over the half-time ice creams and it could not be faulted after the break.

The second half, incidentally, opens with a raunchy, perhaps over raunchy, scene to introduce the next world championship in Bangkok, presumably to distinguish the city in our minds from other tourist destinations such as, for example, Worthing. It is a huge contrast to the black and white world that Chess occupies for the rest of the time and I am still not convinced it quite fits in, but if nothing else it was fun.

The show though is ultimately a love story with two men, one woman and above them all, the game of chess.

Roger Clarke 

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