CHESS; touring till 17 April

CHESS: Music Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Book and Lyrics, Tim Rice
On tourtill 17 April (details
Runs: 2h 45m, one interval
Review: 09 02 11, Hippodrome Birmingham, Alexander Ray

A worthwhile chance to see the show, but underwhelming.

CHESS is an interesting Music Theatre piece. It was written at a time when ‘sung’ though’ was fashionable and is very close to being an opera (if indeed we can tell the difference at all.) The story is intense, dramatic, full of high emotion and contained within a small group of people; indeed, in the second half, the ‘chorus’ become almost irrelevant for long stretches.

These strengths come through in this present touring production despite the production’s attempts to squash them, and some lazy singing for about the first quarter which had me slowly beginning to close down my emotional antennae.

There is a current fashion (on bad days I might say ‘fad’) to have actors playing instruments. In this production every chorus member, and indeed actor, has an instrument. I’m not sure what the effect is meant to be, but it ends up looking faintly ludicrous. And worse, the costumes fabulously represent chess pieces, and frequently curve upwards and outwards, increasing the height and breadth of performers; however give them trumpets, French horns, cellos and the like and the performers are forced to close themselves inwards. Add in, that they frequently have to bunch up in a line and the whole thing looks cramped, even within a big acting space. And major singing, ensemble moments are static and pretty uninspiring.

It’s totally bewildering; and if I were a cynical man (heaven forefend) I’d say it was about saving dosh.

Tim Rice’s lyrics are high quality writing and it was disappointing to not be able to understand them for a good part of the first quarter; this lazy diction (compounded possibly by lazy amplification and mixing) should be sorted. As the actors move into their big numbers, however, it appears they get their bottoms into gear and and the show really takes off.

Shona White is marvellous as Florence. Her acting is strong and she has a big, full and rounded voice, specially effective when belting out her big emotional numbers. Her Florence is someone you definitely can’t ignore. Daniel Koek creates a complex Anatoly, particularly effective early in the show – when we are desperate for someone to hold our interest. James Fox (Freddie) grows as the show moves along, definitely coming into his own in the second half.

Curate’s egg, then; well worth seeing, but seriously underwhelming.

(Credits to Follow)

2011-02-11 11:06:17

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