Written by Tim Rice and ABBA's Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, the hugely successful concept album for Chess was released in 1984 with a full-bodied rock opera score, containing such classics as "Pity The Child", "One Night in Bangkok", "Someone Else's Story", "Anthem", "You and I" and the number one hit "I Know Him So Well".
There was already a cult following before the stage production opened in London's West End two years later. Although it ran for a respectable three years in London, it lasted only two months on Broadway, and has never been credited the success it ought to have been. This is due, in part, to technical difficulties with the original staging, soaring production costs, and a somewhat flawed book.
The story involves a romantic triangle between two top chess players, American Freddie Trumper (played in this production by James Fox) and Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Daniel Koek) – battling it out in a world championship – and the woman, Florence Vassy (Shona White) who manages the American, but falls in love with the Russian. It is set in 1979, in the context of the Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, during which both countries wanted to win international chess tournaments for propaganda purposes.
Although essentially a conventional love story in an unconventional setting, the characters are largely unsympathetic, and the Cold War setting is now perhaps limited in its appeal. However, a successful concert version in 2009 re-awakened interest in the show, and Craig Revel Horwood attempts to breathe new life into it with this long overdue revival.
As you would expect from a Revel Horwood production (with previous award-winning revivals including Martin Guerre, Spend Spend Spend, Hot Mikado and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard), this incarnation of Chess is brilliantly conceived and staged, with a 30-strong cast of actor-musicians wringing every ounce of drama and sensuality out of the phenomenal score, and Revel Horwood's erotic and imaginative choreography.
The digital setting, designed by Christopher Woods with a respectful nod back to the original “analogue” staging, consists of an LED platform in the centre of the stage divided into a 5x5 chess board, which, with clever use of video and lighting, changes to reflect the changing scenes and moods, including a black and white chess board which lights individual squares, highlighting the current singers during "Endgame". A central backdrop of a chequered screen (homage to the bank of TVs used in the 1986 version) reflects the board centre stage, and also doubles as a video screen during Global TV broadcasts and various press conferences. There are mobile video cameras on stage which feed live footage onto the video wall, giving a live and gritty feel to the media scrums.
The entire cast is superb, giving knock out performances as well asmanaging a frightening array of musical instruments between them,. The leads, including Poppy Tierney as Sergievsky's abandoned wife, all excel, each given at least one showstopper in which to shine. Shona White, in a performance not dissimilar to that of her predecessor in the role of Florence, Elaine Paige, is a sensation – her rendition of "Nobody's on Nobody's Side" and the reprise of "Anthem" at the end are real spine-tingling moments and great musical theatre.
Revel Horwood's Sunset Boulevard was, for me, the perfect revival and would richly deserve any award thrown at it (please put it on tour Craig!) but if there was one criticism I could find to make it would be that the small cast of actor-musicians could not hope to match the rich sound of the full orchestra that Lloyd Webber's finest score deserves. In Chess, this is overcome with a much larger cast. However this creates another problem, for me at least, as both the music and the vocals come from the stage, and therefore presumably use the same microphones.
There is a noticeable imbalance and a lot of the words drowned out by the instruments around them. An already complex story, told almost exclusively in song, and with a full-on rock opera soundtrack, makes the narrative very hard to follow and some of the meaning is lost as a result. It may just be a poor sound system or the acoustics at this particular venue, so I would definitely want to try again at another theatre later in the tour to see if it makes more sense to me. The characters are still unsympathetic and the story hard to follow, but the staging and performances are so inspired, and the score so epic in its proportion, that despite its flaws, this production has to be described as a masterpiece, and richly deserves a West End transfer.