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Review of Chess at the London Coliseum

Michael Ball Photography BrinkhoffMögenburg
Michael Ball Photography BrinkhoffMögenburg

It’s always nice when two of your favourite things come together – for example, musical theatre and ABBA. So when I was asked if I wanted to go and see the new version of Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice’s musical Chess at the Coliseum. I leapt at the chance.

Set during the height of the cold war, Chess is the story of two Chess Grandmasters – Frederick Trumper (Tim Howar) from the USA and Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Michael Ball) – battling it out to be world champions under the watchful eye of The Arbiter (Cedric Neal). Both men are totally different. Trumper is loud, brash, arrogant and often ends up arguing with his ‘second’ Florence (Cassidy Janson). On the other hand, Anatoly is a family man, married to Svetlana (Alexandra Burke) and, by all appearances, a dedicated ambassador of the Soviet Union, particularly under the watchful eye of his state-appointed ‘second’ Ivan Molokov (Philip Browne). As tensions rise between the two players, tempers flare and life-changing decisions are made.

I never saw Chess the first time around, so I was really looking forward to seeing this production. And there are so many positive things to say about it. From the stellar cast, all of whom really get into their roles with relish, through to Matt Kinley’s absolutely stunning set, and the lovely music, this musical really had so much going for it.

Unfortunately, for me, there were issues with the overall production. Whilst I loved the set, tiles of a chessboard design made of LED gauze that could be used, via HD video, into anywhere in the world, and also used to project images live from the stage as the performance went on. This gave the show an almost concert feel at times, and whilst effective was, to my mind, used a bit too much. Luckily, the performers backed up by the full ENO orchestra – under conductor John Rigby – and chorus could really pull off the songs, with the highlight being – probably not surprisingly – the fantastic duet of Alexandra Burke and Cassidy Janson singing ‘I Know Him So Well’. My other favourite moment was the chess game in Act I, accompanied by the very well-timed video of the cold war build up and the wonderful orchestral piece ‘Hymn to Chess’.

Richard Nelson’s book is not complicated and the characters were, in some cases, just not given enough time to develop. This was particularly true of Alexandra Burke’s Svetlana who pretty much disappeared after the opening before turning up at the end of act I with the haunting ‘He Is A Man, He Is A Child’. In fact, one of the issues I had with the story is that by the end, I really didn’t feel as if I knew any of the characters that much more than I had at the start. Trumper – I love the prescience of that name for the brash American – and Anatoly are not particularly likeable and Florence feels underwritten. I felt there was so much potential for the daughter of a Hungarian dissident that wasn’t really explored.

Tim Howar and company Photography BrinkhoffMögenburg
Tim Howar and company Photography BrinkhoffMögenburg

I have to say, the second act pulled me into the story more than the first – despite the slightly dodgy start with ‘One Night in Bangkok’ – full of cultural appropriation that felt rather out of place in the twenty-first century. Whilst I didn’t entirely warm to everyone, I did find my sympathy with the male characters improving slightly, especially after ‘Pity the Child’ which brings a certain humanity to the character of Trumper.

Overall then, Chess is a bit of a conundrum. The show has some amazing songs, is performed by a fantastic cast and is staged brilliantly. On a personal level though, I didn’t really warm to the show and by the end, I left the theatre feeling a bit disappointed with the whole experience.

3 Star Review

Review by Terry Eastham

This is the first West End production of Chess since 1986. CHESS was written in 1984 by ABBA songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, The Lion King, Evita), and the original London production starred Elaine Paige, Murray Head and Tommy Korberg. 

CHESS tells a story of love and political intrigue, set against the background of the Cold War in the late 1970s/early 1980s, in which superpowers attempt to manipulate an international chess championship for political ends. Two of the world’s greatest chess masters, one American, one Russian, are in danger of becoming the pawns of their governments as their battle for the world title gets underway. Simultaneously their lives are thrown into further confusion by a Hungarian refugee, a remarkable woman who becomes the centre of their emotional triangle. This mirrors the heightened passions of the political struggles that threaten to destroy lives and loves.

Featuring English National Opera’s award-winning Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by John Rigby with choreography by Stephen Mear, this new West End production is directed by Laurence Connor, whose recent credits include School of Rock and Miss Saigon on Broadway and in the West End, Les Misérables on Broadway, and the international Jesus Christ Superstar arena tour.

Starring Michael Ball as Anatoly, Alexandra Burke as Svetlana, Cedric Neal as The Arbiter, Tim Howar as Freddie, Cassidy Janson as Florence and Phillip Browne as Molokov.

The cast also includes Sabrina Aloueche, Robin Bailey, Sarah Bakker, Jeremy Batt, Kimberley Blake, Sophie Camble, Cellen Chugg Jones, Jordan Lee Davies, Jonathan David Dudley, Richard Emerson, Callum Evans, Chris Gage, Matt Harrop, Jack Horner, Stevie Hutchinson, Nicholas Lee, Sinead Long, Robbie McMillan, Jo Morris, Jennifer Robinson, Jo Servi, Alexandra Waite-Roberts, Carrie Willis, Stuart Winter, Chris Gardner, Matthew Walker and Joe Watkins.

London Coliseum
St Martin’s Lane
London WC2N 4ES
Thursday 26 April – Saturday 2 June 2018


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