Chess

Music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and lyrics by Tim Rice, based on an idea by Tim Rice
Produced by Sasha Regan for the Union Theatre
Union Theatre

Union Theatre - Chess - Sarah Galbraith as Florence Credit: Mug Photography
Union Theatre - Chess - Sarah Galbraith as Florence Credit: Mug Photography
Union Theatre - Chess - Sarah Galbraith as Florence and Nadim Naaman as Anatoly Credit: Mug Photography

The fact that tickets for The Union's production of Chess are now sold out is testimony to the appetite that clearly exists not only for the excellent work that makes this venue a fringe musical landmark but also for this little–seen show from the 1980s.

Staged, with real flair, for this intimate setting by Christopher Howells and Steven Harris, it deserves a transfer albeit to a venue which will preserve its scale—somehow the compact setting here has helped concentrate the small amount of substance for good outcome.

Originally Chess came to life as a concept album (a device well–used by lyricist Tim Rice with his earlier collaborator Andrew Lloyd–Webber) the huge success of which helped secure a West End opening. Nominated for three Olivier Awards but receiving none, the run of the 1986 London production is nevertheless counted in years whilst its Broadway equivalent counts its run only in months.

Success seemed to dwindle with every reincarnation. The move from vinyl to stage obviously required that there be some reworking, and the UK to US transition saw further alterations, not least Trevor Nunn (already the second director) bringing in a new book writer. But these were merely part of a helical series of re–writes and re–imaginings that has continued across the decades.

Billed as the definitive version, this production has the blessing of Tim Rice, although notably no book writer is now credited. Songs that had been cut in previous versions are reinstated and some lyrics are tweaked, at least as against the original.

The central story however remains the same. Amidst a media circus, Russian Anatoly Sergievsky is pitted against American Freddie Trumper for the title of world chess champion. It is a metaphor for the Cold War hostilities, which is then laboured with the machinations of the game of chess and the chicanery of the players' respective management teams trying to get the propaganda upper hand.

Juicing up what already risks being heavy–handed is the love that changes everything—well changes sides at least. Trumper not only looses the championship to Sergievsky but also loses his woman, Florence Vassy, for whom Sergievsky defects. The manoeuvring of both managements by mutual agreement of these three plus the abandoned wife, shows that no one escapes being a pawn in the big game.

Sarah Galbraith gives a vocally engaging and emotionally convincing performance as Florence Vassy. Nadim Naaman is outstanding as Anatoly Sergievsky and Tim Oxbrow, who was so subtle and tender in Legacy Falls, here plays at the opposite end of the scale as brash self–hating Freddie Trumper.

Gillian Kirkpatrick is excellent as the conniving Alexandra Molokova and Natasha J Barnes is transfixing in the solo "Someone Else's Story" as the misused wife, Svetlana. The ensemble singing is richly toned and a real joy to hear.

ABBA duo, Benny Andersson's and Björn Ulvaeus's timeless score—far superior to the lyrics they enhance—benefits from the crisp musical arrangement of Christopher Peake which adds refreshingly contemporary zing. Musical director Simon Lambert leads a first class band of violin, cello, bass, guitar and drums.

Christopher Howells's and Steven Harris's direction is skilful. The progression of events lacks some clarity towards the end but the structure becomes reliant on narration and is suddenly left without so is much to blame. The closing image which sees Florence symbolically leaving her past behind her is off the cheesy scale but on the whole the delivery of this flawed piece is virtually faultless.

Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti