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Was it checkmate for Chess at the Coliseum?

Laurence Connor's production brings the classic music back to the West End for the first time in 30 years

Tim Howar and company in the West End production of Chess
© BrinkhoffMögenburg

Mark Valencia, WhatsOnStage


"Given the sweeping orchestrations by Anders Eljas plus abundant opportunities for ENO's award-winning chorus, it's a shrewd choice for an opera house; and if any director can fill the vast Coliseum stage it's today's go-to man of musicals, Laurence Connor."

"For this production the writers have tidied up the narrative with snatches of spoken exposition, sliced away some flab and provided a new song for the undernourished role of Svetlana... But ENO's pitiless sound balance undoes much of this improvement by obliterating many of Rice's best lyrics, while the show's conclusion remains much as it was: a musically dull quarter-hour."

"Tim Howar delivers "Pity the Child" with a heart full of bile and the sensibility of a rock god... Michael Ball is in rafter-rocking mode as the hero, Anatoly Sergievsky, and his delivery of the great "Anthem" is prodigious... whereas Alexandra Burke as Svetlana seems miscast in a part that gives her soulful voice little to chew on."

"John Rigby and the massed musicians of ENO Orchestra hide in plain sight, set on high and close enough to the roof to raise it – which they do. A roaring first-night audience helped in that. Chess is back, and it's a matchwinner."

Tim Bano, The Stage


"With its star names – Michael Ball, Alexandra Burke, Cassidy Janson – the latest in Michael Grade and Michael Linnit's now annual musical offering at the Coliseum is flashy. But all the flash in the world can't hide the muddle of its concept and execution"

"The treble-heavy sound makes it difficult to hear what everyone's singing, and the songs are taken at a real nip, which doesn't help."

"This production's politics have accidentally stayed in the 80s. The cast is generally impressively diverse, but one scene in Thailand has the ensemble dressed and made up as Thai people, and two men as ladyboys."

"All the principal cast wobble through a ropey first act, with a few high notes that just won't come out however hard they shriek... But thank god for Act Two. They all settle, particularly Tim Howar's Freddie who belts out the ridiculously high "Pity the Child" very well. Ball is mostly on form... but he mistakes insistent rubato for emotion... The only consistently decent performance is from Alexandra Burke as Svetlana."

"It's a gross disservice to a great musical. At least we've got the ABBA reunion and Mamma Mia 2 to look forward to."

Ann Treneman, The Times


"Why did they revive it? Chess hasn't been seen in London for 32 years but it is remembered with a glow. Irvine Wardle, of The Times, said in 1986: "Chess'' turns out to be a fine piece of work that shows the dinosaur mega-musical evolving into an intelligent form of life." Not any longer. This musical has just slipped back into the brontosaurus era."

"Howar plays Freddie like a sub-Bono rock star type while Michael Ball as Anatoly looks bear-ish but is also wooden to the point of plank-like."

"There are many mysteries on stage. Why does Howar glower at the camera in such a hammy way? Why did that accordion player keep popping up everywhere? When Alexandra Burke arrived towards the end of the first half and ripped into a power ballad, I knew it was her (what a voice!) but, as we hadn't seen her for ages, her exact role was a puzzle."

"After the interval, the "action" moves to Bangkok, which provided an excuse for a number with endless acrobatics plus writhing prostitutes being photographed by tourists. Chess is mega all right, as in disappointment. And, through it all, the brilliant orchestra kept on playing because that's their job."

Quentin Letts, Daily Mail


"Laurence Connor's production is busy on both eye and ear. When the big side screens are not showing newspaper headlines, they give us live footage of the main characters during their solos. This is distracting and does the singers few favours, as we get close-ups of their dental work."

"Yet the solos are high points. Alexandra Burke's sudden appearance as Svetlana – after the most paltry narrative build-up – gives the late first half a powerful moment with "Someone Else's Story".

The night's biggest number is shared by Miss Burke and Cassidy Janson's Florence when, rather beautifully, they sing "I Know Him So Well", dwelling on their rival love for Sergievsky.

"The camera work at this point is almost worthy of a schmaltzy pop video. "

Cassidy Janson in Chess
© BrinkhoffMögenburg

Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out


"[Chess] has a genuinely fantastic score, perhaps one of the few musicals between West Side Story and Hamilton to meaningfully sound like a worthwhile product of the popular music of its day."

"Laurence Connor's new production... has the vocal talent to do justice to its score. Michael Ball is great. Alexandra Burke is great. Cassidy Janson is terrific. The lesser-known Tim Howar (the current singer of Mike and the Mechanics for his sins) has a wonderfully versatile rock voice. The ENO Chorus is just peachy. If this was just a concert, it would be a good concert."

"But holy moly does the rest of Chess feel dated."

"The production leans heavily on Terry Scruby's period pastiche videos to try and enliven the static action on Matthew Kinley's vaguely Tron-like set."

"Elsewhere, there's iffy gender politics and dubious racial depictions: I could just about smirk at the kitschy othering of Russia and Eastern Europe, but the orientalist cliches in the yellowfacey Bangkok sequence are pretty gross and almost totally unnecessary."

Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard


"The story is wafer-thin. American chess champion Freddie Trumper faces the challenge of Soviet maestro Anatoly — first in a part of alpine Italy that looks distinctly Bavarian (complete with women in dirndls), then in a not exactly cliché-free Bangkok (think ladyboys and writhing prostitutes). And as Anatoly falls for Freddie's assistant Florence, there are ominous signs that he's not as remote from his wife Svetlana as he initially seems."

"Weak characterisation hobbles the performers. As the self-possessed yet vulnerable Florence, Cassidy Janson has something to work with. But Freddie is obliged to behave like the young John McEnroe's less agreeable twin, and Tim Howar toils to capture his snarling unpleasantness. Michael Ball as Anatoly gets to close the first half with the poignant song "Anthem", yet feels underused, and so does Alexandra Burke, whose dignified and passionate Svetlana barely appears until the second half."

"Laurence Connor's production certainly fills the space, featuring acrobatic stunts and woozy Cossacks. But its predominantly Eighties atmosphere sits oddly alongside sharply contemporary projections and video designs."

Lyn Gardner, The Guardian


"There are some great songs – most notably "I Know Him So Well", which is beautifully delivered by Janson and Burke. The latter brings musical and emotional light and shade to an underwritten role which predominantly requires her to stare into the middle distance and look sad."

"Tim Rice's book is a great lumbering thing and Laurence Connor's slack production seems to work on the premise that if there's enough flashy video you will be too stunned to notice that this is a musical devoid of characterisation with a plot doesn't make sense. An evening that requires two pages of synopsis is one with a storytelling problem."

"It doesn't help that it is often hard to hear the words, even though everyone is almost always shouting. There is also no grasp of the politics of representation: the show is full of national and racial stereotyping, most notably in the Bangkok scene."

Paul Taylor, The Independent


Real humour is thin on the ground in this piece. The principals nonetheless manage to rise above the surrounding portentousness in their best moments. Michael Ball is impressively reserved and troubled as Anatoly Sergievsky, the Russian master, and the stomach lurches as he soars into unfettered feeling in the Act One closer "Anthem". Tim Howar is resoundingly obnoxious and spoiled-rock-star as the American master-turned-TV-pundit and he raises the roof with his high-altitude confessional solo, "Pity the Child".

Alexandra Burke has been given a new song "He is a Man, he is a Child" (from the Swedish-language version) to beef up the underwritten role of the Russian's discarded wife and her soulful renderings brings a pained authority to this woman's emotional confusion and she duets plangently with Cassidy Janson as Florence on the classic "I Know Him So Well". But it's not exactly a compliment to Connor's production that it makes you pine a bit for the concert versions of Chess.