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The tunes are magnificent, but the iconic ‘80s musical has not aged well
From the decade that brought you the daft musical about cats and the daft musical about trains, it’s the return of ‘Chess’, the daft musical about, you know, chess.
Originally running for three years in the West End from 1986, ‘Chess’, by Tim Rice and the blokes from Abba (aka Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus) 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. ‘I Know Him So Well’ and ‘One Night In Bangkok’ were actual pop hits, and the other songs are mostly on the strong side, all pulsing synths and hummable ballads.
Laurence Connor’s new production – the latest in the ENO’s semi-staged series of musical theatre revivals – 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.
For absolute starters, the plot feels like it could only have come from a very specific era in which a non-ironic yarn about bad-boy Cold War chess players (ikr?) seemed like a viable scenario for a musical.
This is not actually quite as weird as it may sound: the showdown between douchebag American chess champ Freddie Trumper (srsly) and his Soviet rival Anatoly Sergievsky is rooted in an era marked out by tremendous chess rivalry between the two superpowers, the ‘colourful’ US champ Bobby Fischer, and multiple Soviet player defections to the West. In 2018, though, the idea of chess as the new rock ’n’ roll is not an easy one to swallow, not least because of how spectacularly dull the lengthy scenes of actual playing are. 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, but they only half-succeed.
Nonetheless, with that score, you could forgive a multitude of sins if it was possible to understand what any of the characters’ motives were. However...
After demolishing Trumper (Howar) on the board, Sergievsky (Ball) defects to the West, abandoning his wife Svetlana (Burke) and child and shacking up with Trumper’s Hungary-born PA Florence (Janson). Despite the general emotional eloquence of the better songs, it is never really clear specifically why Sergievsky ditches his family or why nobody really seems particularly fazed by this. Perhaps wisely making no effort to do an accent, Ball’s poker-faced performance is great in the singing department and not great everywhere else. Admittedly he has almost no material to work with in terms of Sergievsky’s motives: ‘Chess’ began life as a concept album, and it still feels like a collection of songs bound by the flimsiest threads of exposition.
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 yellowface-y Bangkok sequence are pretty gross and almost totally unnecessary.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is that Connor has become the one-size-fits-all director to ENO’s musical theatre strand, and really ‘Chess’ could do with somebody a bit more specific to bring it into the present, somebody who can appreciate both the strength of the songs but do something fun with the plot. This feels trapped in between: there are smatterings of irony, but they don’t trouble the clunkingly un-self-aware main story.
For all its faults, ‘Chess’ clearly has something going for it, but this revival feels like a gambit that hasn’t paid off.