“First rate and faultless”, “It has it all” – Newcastle Chronicle reviews CHESS

Gordon Barr of the Newcastle Chronicle finds that CHESS reaches the parts other musicals cannot reach. Read his article and review and then follow the link (also at the end of the article) to see images and video from the show.

It was check mate as Newcastle hosted the world premiere of Chess the musical.

Written by Abba’s Benny and Bjorn with lyricist Tim Rice, the show got a standing ovation at the city’s Theatre Royal last night, where it is playing for two weeks before embarking on a national tour.

Standing with the rest of the audience was Tim Rice, who was there to witness a startlingly new take on the show, which includes numbers like I Know Him So Well and One Night In Bangkok.

Elements of the show have been cut following previews, including raunchy scenes for the opening number of Act 2, One Night In Bangkok – to Revel Horwood’s chagrin.

“We had a couple of complaints about how sexy Bangkok was,” he explained.

“I had to make a decision if it was family entertainment or should I impress on people Bangkok is a real place and the sexed-up elements pushes the performance forward.

“Maybe, if it ends up there, I will put that back in for the West End. That said, I have a matinee version and an evening show version.

“All my work is generally controversial, though. I try and push the limits on everything.

REVIEW:

I make no bones about it, I am a huge fan of the musical Chess.

That said, it is an incredibly difficult production to stage and several attempts at it in the past have failed miserably.

But that is certainly not the case with this incredible new staging, at the hands of Strictly Come Dancing’s Craig Revel Horwood.

I thought the original West End production, which I saw in the late 80s was, basically, unbeatable.

Never underestimate the creativity of Mr Horwood though – and here he may have produced possibly the ultimate staging of Chess.

I was enthralled from beginning to end and, despite the show being nearly three hours in length, I could have sat there and watched it all again… and again..and again.

The Theatre Royal should be proud to be the first venue to host the show, thanks to its producer Michael Harrison, a Wallsend lad who admitted to me beforehand he knew it was a risk to take on a production of such huge proportions.

His beaming smile at the end of last night proved sometimes the biggest risks are worth taking!

Chess was written by ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson with lyricist Tim Rice.

Set in 1979/80, with the backdrop of the Cold War, it focuses on the World Chess championships, where an American takes on a Russian.

But that is just skimming the surface of the story – what unfolds is a dramatic love triangle, in which the American’s partner leaves him for the Russian under the glare of immense media attention.

Horwood has focused on these relationships and his staging tears at the heart in places.

From the off you know you are in for something special.

There is no orchestra here – instead the instruments are played on stage by the actors themselves, with no sheet music to help them on their way, while they wrestle with the mammoth task of some of the biggest and most difficult songs in musical theatre history, plus they have to act out the drama AND dance at the same time too.

Mind-boggling – and they pull it off to astonishing effect.

If this production does not win a clutch of awards then there is something amiss in the theatrical world. It has it all.

The actors perform on a dazzling LED chess board, while computer generated scenery sets the scenes up perfectly.

There is an element of camp there too, but it is not overt and only adds to the production as a whole. 

While it is very much an ensemble piece – and gold stars to everyone involved – the leads are nothing short of astounding.

Shona White plays Florence, the Hungarian-born woman at the centre of the love triangle.

She is a powerhouse in every respect. Nobody’s Side is a show-stopper, while her crumbling in the emotion-packed You and I reprise sends shivers down the spine.

I Know Him So Well, which she performs with an equally wonderful Poppy Tierney (the Russian’s wife, Svetlana) is given a somewhat toned-down treatment, but it works wonderfully.

James Fox (the American) comes into his own when singing Pity The Child, which he performs with acoustic guitar and which moved Tim Rice himself to say he had never heard it performed so passionately before.

Anthem, for me, is one of the greatest songs ever written, and Daniel Koek (the Russian) closes Act 1 with it in a fitting rendition (which reduced my partner to tears!), followed at the end of Act 2 with Shona White’s stunning interpretation of its reprise.

David Erik as the Arbiter commands the stage during his numbers.

There are some shocks too, though not as many as I may have liked – in so much as Horwood has been forced to tone down the sexual innuendos in One Night In Bangkok. It’s still quite raunchy and while it loses nothing from the tamed down version, I would still have liked to have seen it in all its glory.

Merano, one of the opening numbers, has also been cut completely, due to the running time. But for me time passed so quickly with this production, I would have liked to see it remain.

A world premiere of a premier show. First rate and faultless.

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