It’s been a long time since I played competitive chess and a long time since I saw a West End Musical™
The two things remind me of my nerdy pre-adolescence – I played soundtracks whilst practicing against my Kasparov chess board (honestly, I was such a loser I used to put a soft toy at one end so I could pretend I was playing a person not a computer). Musicals enabled me to access feelings that I had not developed the emotional vocabulary for. With my headphones in I WAS Elaine Paige, I was wise and worldly, I knew him (him, I imagined, was probably Spike from Buffy) so well.
I’m still a nerd, but though I still listen to those showstoppers, I can’t step into the show anymore by just closing my eyes. Perhaps this is why I view most of The West End™ with appreciation (yes, lovely, shiny, sounds great) but ultimately, apathy. It doesn’t excite me the way it once did, it’s not you Cameron and Lloyd Webber, it’s me. I’ve moved on, I play different games now.
So, when I feel a flicker of how it used to feel to blast those tunes on the occasions I could persuade mum to turn it up on the school run, then I have to be honest. Chess, in many ways, is so wrong for 2018. The cold war tension feels dated and lacks teeth, it has problematic gender politics, One Night in Bangkok is horrible, and not for one minute do you believe Michael Ball is a complex, tormented Russian genius. But I’m sorry… I still fucking loved it.
It’s completely OTT. Everything has been thrown at it. Why have an ensemble that can dance and sing when you can also have acrobats, aerialists, camera operators and an accordion player? Matthew Kinley’s set takes the original premise and updates it with right angles sliding in and out, up and down. If the 1984 staging was the standard 64 squares, the creative team are now playing on a 3D board.
Terry Scruby’s video design is doing overtime. At points, watching the cameras and live projection is like watching a ready-made cinema broadcast of the production. However, director Laurence Connor has mostly included it intelligently: this is, after all, a musical ostensibly about chess as a stadium sport with the eyes of the world on it. So, having the celebrities of the game, brattish American Freddie Trumper (Tim Howar) and enigmatic challenger Anatoly Sergievsky (Michael Ball) sing down the lens makes sense in the logic of the show. It’s never better utilized than by the arbiter, Cedric Neal whose extraordinary energy manages to make the match exciting.
Who am I kidding? There’s no logic. The music swings from ’80s synth-filled interpretations of Soviet marches to a literal Hymn to Chess. But One Night in Bangkok feels like some kraken of the past, trying to drag Chess into murky dated depths. Even Howar looks a bit uncomfortable as he rattles through the excruciating rap at speed, presumably to get it over as soon as possible. Could they really find no other way to indicate sleaze than some bad hot pants and lady-boys? And those Thai dance costumes paired with generic orientalist-religiosity and ritualistic movements… it’s bad, guys. It’s real bad.
This whole show is completely ridiculous. It’s not even about chess but the players and the women that love them: Florence Vassy (Cassidy Janson) and Svetlana Sergievsky (Alexandra Burke). Their characters are underdeveloped but then, with nearly no dialogue in this version, they only exist in song anyway and they sound GREAT. I don’t care that Janson is singing something largely nonsensical, bemoaning the loss of passion in a love affair (Heaven Help my Heart) that seems totally founded on one meeting in a Bavarian beer hall. In that moment, I believe her and I am stirred. Similarly, Howar’s Pity the Child is a weird full-on torch song that comes completely out of the blue but is a knockout punch of vocal ability nonetheless.
As the leads, exceptional ensemble and glorious orchestra launched into yet another massive melodramatic number, I was horrified to feel completely coddled in that same sense of awe as singing along to Paige in the ’90s. Dammit. Check mate Benny, Bjorn and Tim. You win.
Chess is at the Coliseum until June 2nd. For more details, click here.