Fans of musicals often have shows that they feel they need to cross off the list. And Chess is one legendary mega-musical, which formed part of the soundtrack to many people’s musical theatre education.
But it’s been a long time since a production’s been in the West End and so although many more mature theatregoers will be comparing it to stagings of yesteryear, I was able to look on the ENO’s new offering at the London Coliseum with fresh eyes.
Yes, I know some of the music, but apart from the much-performed standards “Anthem” and “I Know Him So Well”, I didn’t really ‘know it that well’. And what struck me right from the start was the epic nature of the set. Bedecked with video screens laid out like a chessboard, with the masterful ENO orchestra suspended above the stage, from the very first moment, I was in awe of the sensory spectacle of the piece.
The sound of the orchestra (under the baton of John Rigby) blended with the astounding ENO chorus is, at times heart-stopping and melodies you only vaguely recognise are beautifully brought to life. But there are times when the action and the story become secondary; such is the awesomeness of the sound.
With the Cold War as a backdrop, the story follows the fortunes of a Russian Chess champion in a plot, which sees the world of celebrity cosying up with politics, something that still feels frighteningly apt all these years later.
And the complicated story is well told, with the all-star cast proving their top billing with some great performances.
Tim Hower as the American Chess champ Freddie is suitably arrogant and sleazy until his act two confession “Pity the Child”, which gives some context to his actions, while Michael Ball charms as the Russian; his rendition of “Anthem” to close act one is the stuff of 80s teenage theatre dreams. And he’s well matched by Cassidy Janson, who made the most of some close up video shots to portray the intensity of Florence and Alexandra Burke, who provides some of the musical highlights. I must also mention Cedric Neal who was a late addition to the cast as The Arbiter, but whose vocals are just so sumptuous I looked forward to every note.
There are times when the lyrics are difficult to follow, due to the levels of the sound and number of voices, resulting in some of the story getting lost, but with a score as luxurious as this, it really doesn’t matter and I found the entire production completely captivating.
Reviewed by Nicky Sweetland