Chess has not moved far since it was written as a concept album by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus and the esteemed lyricist Tim Rice. Craig Revel Horwood’s production pushes the pieces in a refreshing new direction, staging a retrospective concert musical which celebrates the 1980s, its fashions and its fears.
A story of romantic rivalry and Cold War suspicion, Chess sees the US meet the USSR at the 1979 World Chess Championship. Here, two players end up battling for more than victory on a checkerboard.
James Fox plays the arrogant American very well. Similar to Adam Pascal’s turn as Trumper at Chess’s recent concert staging, Fox’s voice has a powerful rock edge which contrasts perfectly with Daniel Koek’s operatic Anatoly. Rousing and impassioned, Koek’s end of act performance of “Anthem” was chilling and one of the most moving vocal performances that I have seen on a Glasgow stage this year.
As personal assistant and the sharpest point of a love triangle, Shona White excels, singing like an English Cyndi Lauper and belting out soft-rock power ballads. Steve Varnom’s performance as Molokov, Anatoly’s manager and symbol of Iron Curtain despotism, is vocally smooth in its villainy, shrewdly attuned and reeking of cheap vodka.
Christopher Woods’s black and white design is exceptional. Dressing the ensemble as pearl adorned Queens and pawns in black leather, Hart’s costuming is full of witty contrasts, as is Craig Revel Horwood’s at times brutish and at times serenely elegant choreography.
The surprising difficulty of Chess is Tim Rice’s clunky and one dimensional book. Its at times unbelievable characters move at strange diagonals, trivialising the lovelorn melancholy behind the show’s great ballads and inundating the simple plot with an at times confusing level of detail.
Despite this, Craig Revel Horwood’s reinterpretation of Chess is outstanding, a visually stunning and emotionally striking piece of theatre. Its next move is surely to the West End.