Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Chess - review

Written by: Stephen St. Clement

Union Theatre, London

Given that the Union Theatre’s production of the rarely performed musical Chess comes with the official endorsement of its co-creator Sir Tim Rice, expectations are high for this first major London production of the show since 2008. So high, in fact, that by press night the entire one-month run had already sold out, rendering this review somewhat redundant. Nevertheless, it is well worth marking this latest, “definitive” chapter in the on-going saga surrounding a show which has undergone more rewrites than a BBC Newsnight Special.

The scale of the story and eclectic nature of the musical score provide a great invitation to ambitious concept-driven staging, and the creative duo of Christopher Howell and Steven Harris appear only too happy to oblige. Their use of the space and choreography is strong and inspired, and they create several stunning images and set pieces of such discordant qualities and styles that they really shouldn’t all work together in one show. But, of course, they do.

There are, however, occasions when their auteurship somewhat oversteps the mark: the added opening sequence of Budapest, its citizens being brutally interrogated and slaughtered by Soviet invaders, goes on far too long and adds little to our understanding of the story. Another significant change is the casting of the manipulative KGB agent Molokov as a woman – Alexandra Molokova, played by Gillian Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick performs with confidence and aplomb, and this reimagining of a major player affects a marked change on the game as a whole, though not always for the better: the added syllable does not scan well with the music, while the addition of a powerful female figure from the outset somewhat undermines the heroine Florence Vassy’s role as a woman fighting her corner in a man’s world.

The standard of performances, both individual and ensemble, are largely superb – both highly intelligent and extremely committed: Tim Oxbrow’s electrifying and consistently intense electrifying portrayal of Freddy Trumper keeps the show rocketing along throughout; Nadim Naaman’s tortured hero Anatoly Sergievsky  is thoroughly engaging; and Natasha J. Barnes plays Anatoly’s abandoned wife Svetlana with such wonderful subtlety and inner strength that it is impossible to take one’s eyes off her throughout her second half performance.

The strength of the concept, the commitment of the cast as a whole, and the quality of the musical itself more than makes up for the odd technical hitch, the occasional creative overindulgence, and the odd bit of slightly selfish acting (one imagines for the benefit of a certain prominent member of the Critics’ Circle who was in attendance on press night). One imagines that all the kinks will soon be ironed out, and that the show will hop, skip and jump from strength to strength and be crowned a great success in due course. It’s just a shame that you can’t get a ticket for love nor money. Oh well, check mate, I’m afraid. 

This production runs until 16 March 2013. 

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Anonymous said...

REALLY....Not even one comment or mention of the lead Sarah Galbraith as Florence Vassy. Who is sure to become the next big thing in the west end with the beautiful portrayal of the character both vocally and emotionally.

Stephen St Clement said...

The performers mentioned were the ones who really stood out for me. She really just didn't leave that much of an impression, I'm afraid. In fact, careful reading will show there is a veiled mention of her which may help to explain her absence elsewhere in the review. It is always a matter of opinion and perspective, of course, but here in the blogosphere we are certainly under no obligations to mention everyone, nor indeed anyone whom we do not wish too. Comments and dialogue are, however, always welcomed and appreciated.