book by Richard Nelson lyrics by Tim Rice music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus.
Union Theatre 204 Union Street Southwark SE1 0LX To 16 March 2013.
Tue-Sat 7.30pm Sun 2.30 pm & 7pm.
Runs 2hr 30min One interval.
TICKETS:0207 261 9876.
Review: William Russell 15 February.
A Chess to drive anyone to Bridge.
The tiny Union has a long record of giving ancient musicals a much-needed kiss of life. Alas, this staging of the 1986 show by the Abba duo with lyrics by Tim Rice – his first work after splitting with Andrew Lloyd Webber – is dire, as is the show. You cannot deliver the kiss of life to a corpse.
Chess ran for three years in London, but two years later it ran for two months on Broadway and that was that. It was never considered much good critically. This, its first serious revival, provides a chance to reassess the show.
The plot focuses on a Russian chess player who defects to the West and his American rival at the height of the Cold War. When it opened Bobby Fischer, Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi were household names. Today chess players are top of nobody’s celebrity list, the Cold War is long over, what happened in Hungary in 1956 forgotten, and the result is the show seems pointless.
The score is undistinguished, the staging misconceived and the concealed band far too loud, drowning out the words, which in a sung-through show is fatal. Opera can rely on surtitles. Musicals need microphones. Usually performers at the Union can fill it by vocal prowess alone and this cast probably could too were it not for the racket from a band much larger than the Union can usually field.
Other errors are to set the audience in a cube surrounded by black-cloth walls off which nothing bounces and seat them round three sides of the acting area. This way the cast don’t know where to look, or who to sing to, and the lighting designer has no idea what to do with the lights, which either create stygian gloom or shine on top of the singer’s head, casting their features into shadow.
The machinations of the pointless international rivalry plot are incomprehensible. The result would be sleep-inducing were it not for the noise. But the cast is very good and as the defector and his lover Nadim Naaman and Sarah Gilbraith act and sing superbly.
The Arbiter: Craig Rhys Barlow.
Svetlana Sergievskaya: Natasha Barnes.
Civil Servant: Katie Bradley.
Soviet Diplomat: Colin Burnicle.
The Mayor’s wife: Jen Farrell.
Florence Vassy: Sarah Gilbraith.
Miss Merano: Isobel Hathaway.
The Mayor of Merano: Adam Hills.
Alexandra Molokova: Gillian Kirkpatrick.
Angela St Angelo: Natalie McQueen.
Anatoly Sergievsky: Nadim Naaman.
Frederick Trumper: Tim Oxbrow.
Civil Servant: Wayne Rodgers.
US Merchandiser: Brett Shiels.
Walter de Courcey: Neil Stewart.
Leonard Viigand: Robert Wilkes.
Directors: Chrisopher Howell, Steven Harris.
Designer: Ryan Dawson Laight.
Lighting: Ben M Rogers.
Sound: Ethan Forde.
Musical Arranger: Christopher Peake.
Musical Director: Simon Lambert.
Fight directors: Andrew Ashenden, Annie Duggan.
Hair: Oliver Blackaby.