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I was a Rat (Tour - Birmingham)

Chess

By • West End
WOS Rating:

Well, here's a turn-up. In 1986, Chess was a magnificent but heartless spectacle, with a battery of 128 television screens and a tsunami of lavish, noisy overkill; not half as good as this lean, mean and thrilling revival by Christopher Howell and Steven Harris at the Union.

Even the complicated plot moves when the Cold War chess championship becomes a game of chess between the characters now seem not only plausible but inherently theatrical. The show, which I'd always understood to be an incurable "problem musical," like Martin Guerre, proves to be no such thing.

The score by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (definitely, and operatically, writing outside their Abba box), and lyrics by Tim Rice, have always enjoyed a devoted concert performance following. And that, I thought, was that.

But this brilliant staging allows Rice's superb lyrics - which are playful, witty and seriously inventive - full value; the music, too, is heard to maximum un-microphoned advantage. It's a musical and literary pleasure from start to finish.

Perhaps I was expecting a more drastic overhaul, but the story is the same, so is the structure. And it works. With just one remaining caveat: why is the American grand-master, Frederick Trumper - whom Tim Oxbrow plays impressively as a rasping combo of Robert Downey Jr and Serge Gainsbourg - such a thorough-going scumbag?

His tantrums, when he walks off the stage in the first act contest in the Italian mountain village of Merano, revive memories of oddball Bobby Fischer in the 1972 championship, and there's always a slight strain to the deliberate contrast between the champ and his dignified, circumspect Russian challenger, Anatoly Sergievsky (Nadim Naaman). But both actors sing with great skill and technical control, injecting dramatic tension by playing mind games to the hilt.

In the Elaine Paige role of Florence Vassy, the grandmaster's Hungarian-born grand mistress, who defects to the Russian side in a reversal of Anatoly's own political asylum gambit (reminiscent of Rudolf Nureyev coming the West), Sarah Galbraith is truly outstanding - sexy, full-throated and dangerously devious.

Her big duet with Anatoly's abandoned wife (also superbly done, by Natasha J Barnes), "I Know Him So Well," is sung icily, with poignancy and restraint, on either side of an invisible make-up mirror, just as Naaman doesn't over-sell the big first act closing "Anthem," anchoring it in the dramatic moment of a declaration to the Press.

Song after song has the pithiness and attack of the best in rock oratorio, which is not the only reason Jesus Christ Superstar often bubbles under. Elements of double-cross and betrayal have a sacrilegious element, too, and Frederick turns complete Judas in his role as a media commentator, then adviser, in the second act championship in Bangkok.

Sometimes at the Union you feel that not-so-great musicals - The Baker's Wife, perhaps, or Godspell - look better merely because of the enforced intimacy. But this revival, steely and hard-edged, has an innate vitality, and validity, that bursts beyond the confines to plug an audience directly into a previously under-estimated (by me, at least) work of musical theatre art.

The surprise opening of violence on the streets in the Hungarian Uprising is a bit unnecessary and naff, but otherwise the staging is faultless, from the Eurovision Song Contest-style media hype, to the diplomatic face-offs and conferences, all supervised by the sinister emcee, Craig Rhys Barlow's mask-like Arbiter.

Ingenious back and white design, with some cleverly tilting frames and panels, is by Ryan Dawson Laight, spot-on lighting by Ben M Rogers and top notch musical direction by Simon Lambert, leading a tight, committed small band from the piano in the wings. Unmissable.


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