Your enjoyment of the Union Theatre’s revival of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ musical Chess will most likely be dictated by where you think it sits in the musical theatre canon: a classic which has been inexplicably absent from the stage for too long, or a creative misfire given undue prominence due to the presence of a couple of famous (and admittedly fantastic) tent-pole numbers. It’s worth stating from the off that – despite the best efforts of a talented and engaging cast – I am and remain firmly in the latter camp.
Tim Rice’s tale of warring chess maestros set against a backdrop of Cold War chicanery should be compelling, but it never entirely grips, despite the occasional moving moment. Nadim Naaman is, perhaps necessarily, bland as the Russian grandmaster Anatoly, his Soviet stoicism a deliberate contrast to Tim Oxbrow’s American swagger and showiness. But this blandness makes it difficult to become in any way invested in his fate, and as a result it undermines one of the production’s most potentially poignant moments. When his lover (Sarah Galbraith) and wife (Natasha J Barnes) sing ‘I Know Him So Well,’ it’s a beautiful performance of a song that hasn’t aged (if there’s one thing those Abba boys know, it’s how to write for a heartbroken woman) but it does make you wonder why two such beautiful, vibrant women are quite so taken with such a dull man.
The other famous number, ‘One Night in Bangkok,’ suffers slightly from muddied sound and the fact that, though he gives a charismatic and cynical performance with just the right amount of wounded backstory, Oxbrow is vocally a little underpowered for such a full-on number. The other songs are a mixed bag, though the more light-hearted numbers work well enough and the vodka swilling stomp of ‘The Soviet Machine’ a particular high point.
The cast, for the most part, outshine the material. Galbraith, who was so good recently in the Union’s production of Kander and Ebb’s Steel Pier, once again proves herself a performer of real heart (and good lungs), bringing genuine emotional heft to the role of a woman caught up in the propaganda machine. Barnes doesn’t get a lot to do other than the one great number, but equally she manages to portray the confusion of an abandoned woman whose personal life has suddenly become very political. Gillian Kirkpatrick’s Russian James Bond baddie Molokov is enormous fun, the product of lots of cold, hard winters and tougher than any of the men around her. Neil Stewart, meanwhile, is pleasingly shifty as the enigmatic Walter.
Given the size of the Union, directors Christopher Howell and Steven Harris wisely scale back the set: Ryan Dawson Laight’s set is sparse and effective. But the show occasionally feels cramped in such a compact space, and though the action is kept pacey, there’s a limit to how exciting you can make scenes where two men face each other across a chess board.
Existing fans of the musical won’t be disappointed: the key songs remain thrilling and the performances are incredibly strong. But if you’re ambivalent about the material, as I was, you might find yourself wishing that such a likeable ensemble were expending their efforts on something less creaky.