”Chess” at Theatre Royal Drury Lane – the beauty of staging the unstageable

Chess in concert
Chess in concert

It’s a pretty cushty week for ABBA’s Benny and Björn (I mean, when isn’t a cushty week for them). The pair will have four separate live shows they’ve composed running simultaneously in London – a Drury Lane concert performance of Chess, Mamma Mia! next door at the Novello, ABBA Voyage in its own custom auditorium and the immersive dining Mamma Mia! at the O2.

It’s a testament to their almost faultless ability to deliver a banging tune. Setting aside the ABBA back-catalogue of the three other shows, Chess is laden with musical riches: “I Know Him So Well”, “The Arbiter”, “Pity the Child”, “Anthem”, “One Night in Bangkok”, “Heaven Help My Heart”, “Someone Else’s Story” to name some.

That’s what stuck with me as I hummed my way out of Drury Lane following Monday night’s concert. Nick Winston, who previously gave Chess a pandemic-disrupted run in Japan, has delivered a slick, pared back version of the musical here – letting the tunes do the talking. It’s helped by some unobtrusive choreography, while Ben Cracknell’s lighting shoots beams of light across Drury Lane, quickly evoking Cold War paranoia.

It’s all a great way of side-stepping the glaring issues with the source material: given the lack of a satisfying book (Chess has had more revision thrown at it than my modern history GCSE exam did), the show has a tendency to veer wildly, at time rattling through story and other times alighting for multiple numbers on the same plot point. Characters are sketchily-drawn, with one-note backstories that can be wafer thin. It’s one of the reasons the starry Coliseum run had something of a patchy critical reaction.

But those tunes! It’ll be hard to forget Samantha Barks sending shivers (apt for the West End Elsa) down the spine with a blistering “Nobody’s Side”, while Hadley Fraser’s “Anthem” was as clean cut and note-perfect as they come. Joel Harper-Jackson’s dick-ish, drug-snorting Freddy sees the chess player imbued with a bolshy savagery (and the voice of an angel) while Frances Mayli McCann, returning to the venue after Bonnie and Clyde, duetted to perfection on “So Well”. The concert is must-see watching for anyone with a free day today.

It’s got me thinking. Over in New York they have the “Encores” series – a chance for stage stars and big names to give commercially unfriendly, vintage or forgotten work a second life. This has delivered some excellent musical revivals – including the ongoing Into the Woods production lighting up Broadway. Maybe it’s time that the UK doubled down on something similar. The LMTO, accompanying Chess here, seems perfectly placed to deliver that. Give the company a home (the Southbank Centre? Royal Albert Hall?), regular seasons, institutional support and away we could go.

In the meantime – Chess is the opening salvo in a series of concerts including a new production of fan favourite Kinky Boots (probably too recently staged in the West End to justify a full return run) and new musical Treason, which looks like it hopes to follow in the footsteps of shows like Eugenius in building a following through semi-staged concerts before bagging a full production. These concerts are commercially safer gambles, with exhibitions of the best in stage talent while offering one-off gifts to audiences. What’s not to like?

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