Making all the right moves

Chess

Wolverhampton Grand

*****

THESE days you have to be able to sing, dance, act and play a musical instrument to go on stage and the cast of 26 manage that brilliantly in this revival of Tim Rice's Cold War musical.

You even have to be able to operate a video camera on the end of your trumpet to provide a live video feed as part of the stunning audio visual effects which involve a huge video screen as a back wall and an illuminated floor.

Back in the 1960s and 70s the US and USSR squabbled over everything with the space race and the Olympics regular battlegrounds as they tried to turn sporting or scientific achievement into some sort of proof of social and political superiority.

When the USA found it had a chess genius in Bobby Fischer, the board game, which up to then had the same sort of world profile as Ludo when it came to TV and media coverage, was suddenly prime time. 

It culminated in the 1972 World Championship between Fischer, the challenger, and the champion Boris Spassky in Reykjavik.

This was Uncle Sam against the Russian Bear, white against black, Superbowl on a board. War by proxy.

Now, with the Cold War having thawed, chess, which even its biggest supporters would admit was never a game which lent itself to TV, is back to its Ludo status.

The musical centres on a fictional match between the mentally unstable US world champion Freddie Trumper (James Fox) and the calm Russian challenger Anatoly Sergievsky (Daniel Koek).

Fox incidentally represented the UK in the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest with Hold On To Our Love, which had the novelty for a Eurovision song of being half decent. He manages to produce a good mix of nastiness and sadness in Trumper while Australian Koek, who has a tremendous voice, makes you believe in the Russian who is torn between family, freedom, country and chess.

Into the mix are thrown the seconds, comrade Alexander Molokov (Steve Varnom) and Florence Vassey (Shona White) with Florence providing support and romance for, eventually, both contenders. She also provides a truly stunning voice.

Poppy Tierney as Anatoly's wife Svetlana Sergievsky allowed out of the USSR to distract her defector husband. Pictures: Keith Pattison

Poppy Tierney complements her well in duets as Anatoly's wife Svetlana, while overseeing it all is the arbiter, played with style by American David Erik.

There is also the emerging power of TV who now dominate any sport where money is involved with James Graeme playing the TV Presenter from Global, Walter De Courcey, who is not above getting his hands dirty in world politics for a story.

The first half sets the scene and may be a bit of a mystery for those under 50 whose only knowledge of the Cold War and four-minute warnings is as a GCSE module. The second half though with its mix of intrigue, treachery, romance and eventually integrity is much easier to follow - scene setting has become story.

The score, by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, half of ABBA, is exceptional and despite the subject matter being more than 30 years old Craig Revel Horwood, the director and choreographer, has made the show appear new and fresh. Yes it is he of Strictly Come Dancing and for those who think the world lives in that box, or these days, panel, in the corner of the living room opposite the sofa, he does have a proper job as well - and very good at it he is too which is why he is in demand in the West End and around the world for musicals and opera.

With the 26 strong cast wandering about the stage with their instruments it would have been easy to make it look like the Royal Philharmonic trying to get on the Tube in rush hour but there is a structure there as the chess pieces provide the backdrop for the action. They bring what is essentially a board game to life, giving it the sort of significance that it had when Russia and the USA took their propaganda war to nuclear levels.

The set is a multi-media delight and it is a pity it ran into a technical hitch on the opening night with part of the video display malfunctioning in the second half but that hardly detracted from what was a great show.

The set design, incidentally was by Christopher Woods who also was responsible for the costumes which were all black or white with any colour coming from the ever changing hues of the set with its video wall and 70's disco style flashing panels.

Chess is a much under-rated musical but this fine production should find many new fans.To 16-10-10

Roger Clarke 

And with a closing gambit . . .

*****

WITH the ongoing popularity  around the world of  Mamma Mia, it is perhaps easy to forget that well before this show, came  another offering from the hit making  partnership, Benny Anderson  and Bjorn Ulvaeus.

Chess opened at The Prince Edward theatre, London in 1986 – a potentially glorious mixture of Tim Rice's lyrics and Benny and Bjorn's music. 

Certain songs from the show were already well known  - the duet  I Know Him So Well reaching the number one spot for Elaine Page and Barbara Dixon.  Pre­- releasing  a cast  album prior to opening the show  was  a  strategy used by  Tim Rice before on Evita  as a way of  building up anticipation  and, lets not deny it, ticket pre-sales..  Mr Rice, it seems, has   a sharp business brain, as well as a  distinct way with words!

The story   centres on the World Chess Championship between the American, Freddie Trumper and the Russian, Anatoly Sergievsky.  At  a time when  the  US A  and the USSR  were locking their capitalist / communist horns in the midst of the cold war, the game of chess depicted here   is clearly a metaphor for the strategic movements being played out by these two superpowers.  All sounds rather solemn for a musical but, it's far from that! 

As in most good stories, love and   tangled relationships are key themes.  They emerge here against the political posturing and tear genuinely at heart strings.

This touring production, directed and choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood, is a ‘must see'.  Revel Horwood is of course best known for his  Mr. Nasty  personna  on BBC's  Strictly Come Dancing.  To judge  him only for that does him a massive   injustice.    He creates a magical picture here,  blending   spectacular staging with a cast that  carry the often complex numbers with  pin point precision.  This is  one of those rare times when every single aspect  marries beautifully to create  a piece of theatre from which you just can't take your eyes. Lighting is faultless.  Video sections are innovative. Sound is perfectly balanced. Costumes bedazzle  and performances are  razor sharp.  Quite simply, there is no weak link . . . and it shows.

There are stand out performances here but the show's strength lies just as much in the ensemble work.  Musical Supervisor and Orchestrator, Sarah Travis flies in the face of theatrical convention and puts the orchestra onstage, rather than in the pit.  We are not talking a few tambourines and the odd flute here either. This is a full orchestra  of Actor/Musicians playing and singing  a complex score whilst  being an integral part of the action.  Multi-ttasking was never so aptly demonstrated.

James Fox as the American Chess Master, Freddie Trumper, is a powerhouse performer. He produces one of the show's stand out moments with his rendition of Pity The Child - a song that has something of a reputation in the musical theatre world as being notoriously tricky to get right. Not many manage it – Fox does in spades.

EMOTIONAL SIREN

Shona White is outstanding as Florence Vassy.   Her voice switches beautifully from belting rock chic on  Nobody's Side to  emotional siren on I know him  So Well. Pitch perfect and pulsating throughout.

Strong performances, too, from Daniel Koek as the Russian contender, Anatoly Sergievsky  and Poppy Tierney as his wife, Svetlana.  David Erik  borders on pantomome baddie but  broods menacingly  as the  referee, The Arbiter.

And then, of course, comes the score. Song after song of sumptuous melodies, clever counter harmonies and styles ranging from riff driven rock, to Gilbert and Sullivan style sections of pure operetta.  Shades of ABBA  are certainly  evident but why change a formula so easy on the ear?

In the interest of balance, I should find fault.  Very well., I will. Part of a projected sign in one of the scenes was not working.  I have no doubt it will be for the rest of the run and in such a technical show this was minor mishap.

This show is a gem. Do whatever you can to get hold of a ticket.  

Tom Roberts 

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