There are a lot of “what ifs” about Chess, the 1986 musical conceived and written by Tim Rice, with music by Abba’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, long before each party would respectively go on to be part of two of musical theatre’s biggest-ever successes, The Lion King and Mamma Mia! respectively. Just as in the cerebral game that it is played out against, Chess is a heady mixture of bold planning and cunning surprises – but the biggest surprise of the show’s tortured history is that the best laid plans don’t always pay off.
For Chess famously got off to a great start offstage, with the release of a concept album in 1984 that yielded two massive chart hits in One Night in Bangkok and I Know Him So Well, and a concert staging that followed in London and cities across Europe was also an instant triumph.
Theatrical success seemed guaranteed. But then the Broadway director/choreographer Michael Bennett, who would subsequently die of an Aids-related illness, withdrew from the proposed 1986 London theatrical premiere, having already cast and supervised its design, and the task of implementing a new vision with the remnants of an old one were handed over to Trevor Nunn. What had been heavenly turned into a dissection of cold war politics that made the show itself icy.
But what if Bennett had been able to carry on? The answer, nearly a quarter of a century later, may possibly be provided right now by the explosive, propulsive production that another star director/choreographer Craig Revel Horwood has fashioned for a new national tour – he’s given it the kind of kinetic momentum and bursts of camp humour that only a director who knows about the intrinsic value of movement and jokes can provide. Horwood and his designers Christopher Woods (sets and costumes) and Jack James (video) also borrow Bennett’s reliance on scene-setting use of TV imagery and a floor lightbox, though technical improvements in the years since allow them to up the ante.
Even they can’t solve all the problems of the through-sung oratorio form – the complex interweaving of defections, both personal and national, that its Russian and American chess players Freddie and Anatoly and the woman who shuttles between them undergo, has some narrative difficulties, since they depend on Tim Rice’s sizzling, clever lyrics to drive it forward, not all of which can be heard against the soaring melodies.
Mamma Mia! may have made Andersson and Ulvaeus inadvertently into musical theatre icons, but the frenetic and eclectic melodic splendour of the songs in Chess, written specifically for the theatre, is in a class of its own. In fact I’d call it the greatest theatrical pop score of them all – and this production field a set of principal performers who give it full fierce rein.
James Fox – accompanying himself on electric guitar for his great aria Pity the Child – has a bald swagger as Freddie, Daniel Koek’s Anatoly brings a fierce passion to turn Anthem into a stunningly powerful cry of the heart and Shona White brings the vocal ferocity and a tonal similarity that Elaine Paige originally lent to Florence, while looking uncannily like Anita Dobson.
The score also sounds fuller than ever before thanks to the fact that its 30-strong company provide their own orchestral accompaniment. I’ve not always been a fan of actor-musician productions, since they’re usually a way to cut corners on cost for producers, but this time bodies have been added that actually lend body to a score that fully deserves it. The cold war that Chess is set against may be a thing of the past, but the time may finally have come to enjoy this hottest of productions.
It’s sure to be a big hit as it travels around the country’s number one venues, where title recognition and its star creators will help to sell it. Perhaps it could even be time to give it another West End outing, too, though the absence of star onstage names might be an inhibiting factor there.