Chess review: A timely revival of Benny and Bjorn’s Cold War musical ★★★

Michael Ball performs with the English National Opera in a spectacular revival of Tim Rice's 80s hit

Tim Howar and Michael Ball in Chess the Musical

Two years after Andrew Lloyd Webber confounded those who thought Starlight Express — a show featuring singing trains — was a frankly bonkers idea, his former partner in rhyme, Tim Rice, caused theatrical eyebrows to be raised once again when he came up with the idea of a musical based on a board game.

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What Rice produced, in collaboration with Abba boys Benny and Bjorn, was so much more — let’s face it, it had to be. Set amid the tensions of the Cold War, Rice and co used chess as an allegory for the political posturing of East and West, mixed in with a love story involving the main protagonists.

The show ran for three years in London from 1986 and has been produced with varying degrees of success around the world, with much tinkering along the way.

Now it’s back in the West End, with further revisions — most notably an extra song — and a convenient slice of serendipity given the current state of relations with Russia, and on a happier note, the announcement that Abba are to release their first new music for over thirty years.

Director Laurence Connor directs this revival in the grandiose setting of the London Coliseum with plenty of spectacle that does justice to the venue and the lush score, brought thrillingly to life by the magnificent English National Opera orchestra conducted by John Rigby. But he does get carried away, relying too much on video projections that are fine when used to augment Matt Kinley’s clever set, but endless close-ups of the actors made it feel a bit like a music festival. Things weren’t helped by a dodgy sound mix that at times obliterated Rice’s clever lyrics.

Current World Chess champion Freddie Trumper (Tim Howar) arrives in Italy for a series of matches with Russian champion Anatoly Sergievsky (Michael Ball). Trumper is grandmaster as rock star. Hidden behind a pair of Ray Bans, he petulantly struts his stuff at a press conference that descends into chaos after Freddie takes exception to questions about his relationship with his second, Florence (Cassidy Janson).

Tim Howar and ensemble
Tim Howar and ensemble

Things don’t get any better once the matches begin, with an increasingly tense Freddie throwing the board to the ground and storming out, leaving Florence to patch things over. She arranges a clear-the-air meeting between the two men and after Freddie is typically late, wouldn’t you know it, Florence and Anatoly fall for each other. What follows is the unfolding love tussle set against the background of the chess championship.

The allegory is applied with a heavy hand with big screens showing the tense history between the two nations — from space race through the Cuban missile crisis to the boycott of the Moscow Olympics — as downstage the two players indulge in their cerebral battle of wits.

Connor is blessed with two fine voices in Ball and Howar, with both men wholly believable in their roles. Cassidy Janson shows a full vocal range from sensitive balladeering to full-throated powerhouse and she imbues Florence with a tangible fragility. Alexandra Burke does the best she can as Svetlana — the wife abandoned when Anatoly takes up with Florence — but the role feels unwritten despite the character’s extra song.

As is to be expected it’s the hit singles that are the standout songs: Howar on the rap-influenced One Night in Bangkok, and Janson and Burke do a fine job on the duet I Know Him So Well.

Chess deserves its place as one of the UK’s most popular musicals and generally this revival does it justice.  I just wish Laurence Connor had trusted the material and not overwhelmed it with so much flash and trickery.

Chess is at the London Coliseum until 2 June

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