‘Each game of chess means there’s one less variation left to be played’, runs the first song in this loopy Cold War musical, penned by Tim Rice and the two blokes from Abba, which has gone through almost as many iterations as the game itself.
This ambitious revival at the Union Theatre is the first full staging of Rice’s ‘definitive’ version of the musical, but despite talented performances, sharp choreography and a simplified book, the efforts to cram the production into such a small space have left it looking rather battered.
There’s plenty to praise: Nadim Naaman has great stoic presence as Russian chess master Anatoly, and Sarah Galbraith is superb in the role of Florence, doubly ensnared in a fierce love triangle and an escalating propaganda war.
The lighter songs hit the spot: ‘Embassy Lament’ becomes a comic tap routine, ‘The Soviet Machine’ a medley of thigh-slapping and vodka slugging, but the more bombastic numbers are checkmated by a sound mix that renders many performers inaudible. Dodgy sightlines contribute to a sense of tumult and jumble that leaves big chorus numbers feeling shrill rather than stirring.
Directors Christopher Howell and Steven Harris probably make enough of the right moves to satisfy fans, but they’re unlikely to convince sceptics of this slightly self-important musical oddity. Stewart Pringle