CHESS in London – the reviews

John Barber, The Daily Telegraph, 16 April 1986

CHESS – Gift-Wrapped and Gorgeous:

It’s as lush as Turandot. Dramatically, as slow-moving as Parsifal. To look
at, as geometrical as a tiled floor. So the long-awaited new pop-opera CHESS
draws up at the Prince Edward, like some fantastically spangled barouche: it
compels admiration but dwarfs the people within. You realise in a blink that
this gorgeous show, Anglo-Swedish in inspiration but American-financed in part,
has been embellished by the most lively of Broadway choreographers and the most
chic and stylish of Broadway scenic and costume designers, Robin Wagner (Annie)
and Theoni V. Aldredge (42nd Street). Accordingly, the CHESS ballet prologue may
be inferior to De Valois’ “Checkmate” but is an eye-popping delight. The book
and lyrics have all of Tim Rice’s laid-back knowingness.

The tunes of the ABBA men Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus may occasionally
sound like anybody’s but the orchestrations of Anders Eljas gift-wrap them in
the glint and sparkle of a mountain stream. And here is a musical which has
something to say. It deplores the way a noble game may be degraded by
international feuding, the ballyhoo of merchandisers, the voracity of the media
and the ferocious exhibitionism of both players and supporters.

The astonishingly old-fashioned opening Tyrol scene, all peasant dirndls and
lederhosen, recalls Ivor Novello. But then the championship area finds the two
contestants, a Russian and an American, involved in underhand tactics and
overturned chessboards, to day nothing of a blackmailing KGB villain and the two
players’ private batter over the same woman. Already stuffed to the gills with
plot, CHESS is further crammed to the eyeballs with the kind of visual stunts
associated with the director, Trevor Nunn, who regards spectacle as the first
glamouriser of thought.

On each side of the stage and behind it, vast sectionalised screens scream
against the actors for attention. Giant TV commentators’ faces alternated with
pseudo-newsreel shots of off-stage action or even films of the USSR’s invasion
of Hungary. Enlarged CHESSboards illustrate the moves, but too fast to be
followed. And-most tiresome of contemporary tricks-even as they are speaking,
actors’ heads are seen in video close-up. Overspill is the name of the game: you
don’t know where to look.

Riding high overall the hype, Elaine Paige avidly and resoundingly seizes the
star role and turns in a performance outtopping her Evita-thrilling to watch and
glorious to hear. She plays the hard-bitten Hungarian side-kick of the
loud-mouthed American contender (Murray Head) but falls precariously in love
with the Russian, who is married. After victory he defects but ends – we are
asked to drop a tear – by returning to the homeland he had serenaded in Tommy
Körberg’s greatest moment in the role. Miss Paige’s two best numbers find score,
lyrics and artist in perfect union. “Nobody’s Side”, a rueful, forboding of
emotional disaster ahead (“Never be the first to believe, Never be the last to
deceive”), and “Heaven Help My Heart”, a passionate soliloquy as she
half-realises her lover will probably leave her stranded.

For the rest the opera (little spoken dialogue) is feebly characterised and
devoid of humor save for a duologue satirising embassy officials. The girl’s
half-hearted Russian comes to life no more than the oaf she forsakes: these are
copybook types. And the synthetic situations keep repeating the same worthy
message, that the game matters more than the players.

But dramatic development is not possible in a show so over-anxious to grab
your attention with a jolly parade of drum-majorettes, a picture-postcard
impression of sexy Bangkok or a dazzling solo dancer (Tom Jobe). Perhaps if Mr.
Nunn had been in at the beginning, he might not have been driven to swaddle in
glittering incidentals the heart of any story: the people in it, and the
excitement of the crises they face.

David Shannon, The Independent, 15 April 1986

Opening move is nearly a winner:

In 1981, Tim Rice asked ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus to work with
him on a musical. In 1983, they wrote it. In 1984, they released an album of
songs from it. And last night CHESS opened at London’s Prince Edward Theatre.
Five years in the arriving, it should be at least another five before it leaves.
The show is directed by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Trevor Nunn and has a
cast of 44. Lavishly produced, it has a stage which rotates, rises, tilts and
threatens to roll everyone on it into the stalls. The set includes 132 (actually
128) TV screens on which ex-news-reader Robert Dougall makes a special
appearance. Unlike Laurence Olivier’s in Time, his nostrils never run away from
his face. Maybe it’s his BBC training. Although the story centres on two chess
world championships, the sight of people hunched over boards pondering what to
do with their rooks is kept to a minimum.

Where it does occur, it is enlivened by them gesticulating a lot and pushing
each other. Far-fetched? Bear in mind that for the 1978 world championship in
the Philippines a cable was specially made to prevent Karpov and Korchnoi from
kicking each other. The champion in this show is cynical, nervy, American and
played by Britain’s Myrray Head. He wears training shoes, chews gum and has a
rowing machine in his hotel room.

“Are you an asset to East-West relations?” the press asks him. “You can not
be serious! ” he replies. Does he remind you of anyone? The challenger, a
Russian, is played by Tommy Körberg. He wears boring trousers and has bugging
equipment in his room. The trousers do not stop the American’s adviser (played
by Elaine Paige) from falling in love with him.

The show is about how politics and commerce intrude on chess and how
single-minded you have to be to do well at it. The music ranges from pastiche
light opera to soft rock. Elaine Paige sings well but is not the star of the
show. That honour undoubtedly goes to Tommy Körberg, whose singing is
outstanding. CHESS is nearly a major triumph, but not quite. It could do with
being a half an hour shorter, and adding more excitement to the choreography. It
is gripping, eye-catching, but shallow. I await a draughts, dominos or tiddly
winks sequel.

Michael Coveney, Daily Mail, 16 May 1986

CHESS/Prince Edward:

It is exactly 100 years since Steinitz crowned himself the first world
champion of chess, and the sport that is Soviet Russia’s chief pastime is now
the subject of a decadent Western musical written by Tim Rice (lyrics) with
Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (music), directed by the show-bix
Shakespearian Trevor Nunn, lit by David Hersey and designed by Broadway’s Robin
Wagner (sets) and Theoni V. Aldredge (costumes).

The first half is set in the Italian mountain village of Merano, the second
in the hotels and temples of Bangkok. The Sound of Kismet, in fact, would not be
too sarcastic a description, for the cold war of a Red-bashing temperamental
American champion and the warm, well-behaved Russian challenger is merely the
background to a rather muddled romantic story involving Elaine Paige as
Florence, the American second, who falls in love despite conflicting ideologies.
Elton John’s “Nikita” video said it all more pungently in five minutes.

The story was confusing on the original album-which contains two first class
chart-toppers, “Bangkok” and “I Know Him So Well”-and Mr. Nunn and company still
fail to elucidate why the Russian wife of a challenging Anatoly is such a pain,
what exactly is the political manoeuvring behind behind the exchange of
Florence’s father (not seen by her since she fled Budapest in 1956) for the
Soviet redemption of Anatoly; or why Murray Head’s histrionic mixed-up kid of a
defeated champ should turn up in Bangkok as turncoat media commentator before
feeding tips to Anatoly on his Indian defence.

In Bangkok, Anatoly is playing a new challenger (a Soviet nonentity whom we
never see [incorrect, he is in the “Soviet Machine” number]) having defected to
England for love of Florence. In Mr. Head’s first act tantrums there are echoes
of Bobby Fischer’s behavior in the 1972 championship, and elsewhere the plot
contains obvious echoes of Karpov and Korchnoi. But Korchnoi’s complaint never
ran to reprising a lot of ABBA-style deadwood recitative that only reminds one
of how good Jesus Christ Superstar was in that respect, and how dated and
dramatically inert much of this sounds.

Unhampered by any such misgivings, Mr. Nunn transforms the material into a
fine spectacle of chorales, operatic domestic scenes and Evita-like bobbing
company tableaux, none of it as brilliantly distinctive as Hal Prince’s work on
the latter show, all of it superbly sung and above all, lushly orchestrated and
ingeniously manufactured through the sound system.

The stage lifts and tilts, the squares light up in bars and for the climactic
all-Russian match, by now relegated to a diplomatic charade in the love
triangle, the company assemble in severe black and white costumes intoning the
names of past grandmasters through to Petrosian and Spassky. The one performance
that stands out is Tommy Körberg’s as Anatoly, an immediately sympathetic
performance that free-wheels expertly through the ABBA whirligig of crashing
chord sequences to register a defiant cry on behalf of which there are too few,
you recall that Mr. Nunn’s last anti-Soviet musical, Every Good Boy Deserves
Favour (with Messrs Previn and Stoppard) gave impassioned expression to the
dissident’s plight.

The proceedings are monitored and supervised by Tom Jobe as an athletic
Arbiter who makes the most of his item with the other judges even if he does
resort to outrageousness. It is hardly his fault that he resembles a
disco-dancing Scandinavian maniac in the Eurovision Song Contest. The diplomatic
wheels are oiled and then clogged by John Turner as the Russian second, Kevin
Colson as a broadcasting executive. The media hype and pressure on the
contestants is conveyed by a battery of TV screens (all 128 of them, that is
twice times the 64 squares) and the excited introductions by none other than
former newscaster Robert Dougall (the admirable fellow who gave up reading the
news because it was all so terrible).

Miss Paige, as usual, sings fit to burst, but she lacks a clinching element
of emotional warmth (and should change her hairdresser), a quality you feel
un-thriftily squeezed out of Siobhan McCarthy’s impenetrable spurned wife.
Still, their duet confirms the song as one of the best pop numbers in recent
years, thrilling in its undercutting syncopations, melodic thump and structure.
The show is extremely theatrical but, paradoxically, lacks a true sense of
theatre, as signaled by the ornate Chinese ballet prelude, a needless device
echoed by the relaxed Thai jinks after the interval. Not too many complaints
about Mr. Rice’s lyrics this time, some of them of almost Gilbertian wittiness.

Clive Hirschhorn, The Sunday Express, 18 August 1986

When Pawns Mean Politics:

International politics face the music in CHESS (Prince Edward) an ambitious
new musical by Tim Rice and ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, that just
happens to be graced with the catchiest new score I’ve heard in years. The
music, a tuneful amalgam of operetta, hard-rock, soul, disco, and mainstream
Broadway, is its strongest asset, and works miracles in diverting attention away
from the flaws in the muddled plot.

On the surface, it is about a chess match between a Russian (Tommy Körberg)
and an American (Murray Head) and the rivalry that develops between them,
especially when the American’s girlfriend (Elaine Paige) defects emotionally and
falls in love with the Russian. The Russian, in turn, uses the championship (set
in Merano, Italy) to defect, abandons a wife and two kids, and seeks asylum in
Britain. Eventually, though, he returns to the old country and his family. Tim
Rice clearly sees the rivalry between his adversaries in a broader context than
the surface narrative, and the show is conceived as a metaphor for the dominance
sought in the political arena by the world’s two major powers.

As for the chess players themselves, they are merely pawns in an
all-too-familiar game of East-West politics. Hardly a shattering premise. But as
imaginatively staged by Trevor Nunn, with good-looking choreography by Molly
Malloy and dressed in high-tech sets by Robin Wagner, including 128 TV monitors
dazzlingly synchronised, professional sleight-of-hand scores a triumphant
victory of style over content. And if, on occasion, the show’s pace is redolent
of a chess match itself, the music as I say, is always a palliative. It is
powerfully sung by Tommy Körberg, the undoubted star of the show, with vigorous
vocal support from Elaine Paige whose way with a song, as we all know, could
shatter plastic. What a shame she does not have a stage presence to match.

John Peter, The Sunday Times, 18 May 1986

CHESS: the losing streak:

What I do not understand about CHESS (Prince Edward) is why it needed Trevor
Nunn to direct it. On the face of it, why not? Here is a big, swanky musical, by
Tim Rice , and Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA, about East-West
confrontation in the world chess championship. On my left, the American
title-holder, Frederick Trumper (Murray Head), and his glamorous second,
Florence (Elaine Paige). She is Hungarian-born, having lost her parents in the
uprising of 1956 when she was five. This gives a certain piquancy to having on
my right the Soviet challenger, Anatoly Sergievsky (Tommy Körberg), and his
sinister second, Molokov (John Turner), who is clearly run by the KGB. Anatoly
is calm and nobly brooding; Frederick is temperamental and loutish. The
championship is stormy. Frederick resigns. Anatoly defects. (Why? Ed.) Never
mind.

Frederick, we find, is loutish because he comes from a broken home. Florence
laments the fall of Budapest. It is beginning to sound as if the thing had some
bearing on real life, but the illusion is short-lived. Act II. Enter eight
Buddhist monks and dance. This must be Buddhapest. No: it is Bangkok. The world
title is defended by Anatoly (now UK) and challenged by a Russian whose identity
is unclear. Anatoly now lives with Florence. Enter Molokov and his KGB
attendants with bugging devices and revolvers; they drink heavily (Molokov
cocktails?) and dance niftily. Meanwhile, the Americans enjoy massage parlours
and other decadent things. The Russians tip generously. The Americans do not.

The Americans trap Anatoly into a TV appearance where he is interviewed about
his defection, and the wife and children he left behind, by none other than the
ex-champion, Frederick. (All a bit incredible, isn’t it? Ed.) Well, yes,
especially the end. The US and the USSR plot together to get Anatoly to lose,
otherwise his family will be in trouble. They enlist Florence’s help by telling
her that her father’s still alive in a Soviet jail, and… (You are making this
up. Ed.)

All right, I won’t reveal the end. But the fact is that this is a shallow,
improbable story masquerading as a serious musical. Its politics are carefully
tailored to be equally, and only mildly, offensive to both sides. A political
charade ends up as an apolitical idyll with a Touching Human Ending: Rambo on a
chess-board.

The staging has a huge high-tech expertise (multiple TV screens, hydraulic
chess-board floor with transparent panels): it needs a technological MC rather
than one of the world’s foremost directors of classical drama. The acting is
passable. The music is witty and accommodating; it imitates too many styles to
have any real character of its own. Sometimes it sounds as if Khachaturian had
written something for a Palm Court orchestra.

Murray Head’s singing is like sandpaper, and his voice can’t even approach
the higher register without cracking hideously. Tommy Körberg, from Sweden, is
personable and pleasant. Elaine Paige dominates the scene, which is what you’d
expect from a diminutive Hungarian, and her voice soars birdlike, with an acid
edge and a warm sensual chuckle: steel and honey.

Michael Billington, The Guardian, 16 May 1986

How Rice’s pawn show ends in stalemate:

I first heard CHESS 18 months ago in a concert version at the Barbican when
it was a series of buoyant numbers linked by explanatory narration. It was far
more enjoyable then than it is now in a full-scale Trevor Nunn production and
the reason why is not hard to seek.

The show’s libretto lacks plausibility, fails to move one and simply cannot
carry the political weight eventually thrust upon it. A musical is much more
than a collection of numbers; to succeed it has to have a strong, sustaining
dramatic idea (think of My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Sweeney Todd). But here
it is hard to work out what that idea is.

In the first half, taking place among the chess set in the Tyrolean town of
Merano, it seems to be about the temperamental collision between the patriotic
Soviet champ and his frenziedly neurotic American rival. But in the second half,
set in Bangkok after the Russian’s defection to the West, it apparently becomes
about the tawdry manipulativeness of two political systems both conspiring to
blackmail the Soviet champion into returning home. It is not that the show lacks
plot (far from it): what it lacks is a governing theme that would give it
emotional momentum or even dramatic logic. Time and time again, one is left
boggling at the theatrical naivete of the piece and the assumption by Tim Rice,
Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus that the songs alone (there is virtually no
dialogue) will cary the story.

When the first chess championship erupts in disorder, the moment has no
dramatic weight because you can’t quite work out what happened. When the Soviet
hero, Anatoly seeks political asylum in the West by checking in with a couple of
pinstriped twits in the British consulate, you look on (at least I do) in rank
incredulity. And when Anatoly goes into a Bangkok TV studio to be interviewed by
his former rival and goaded about his abandoned wife, you wonder if anyone in TV
history ever stumbled so dumbly into such a trap. If this were a play, the air
would be rent with raucous peals of disbelieving laughter. Why should the
dramatic rules be any different for a musical? The show has some decent numbers.
But while they work in a recording, they make minimal impact in the theatre
because they exist in a total emotional vacuum. Elaine Paige plays an Anglicised
Hungarian who starts as the American’s second and ends as Anatoly’s lover.
Leaving aside the question of whether a Budapest refugee could ever fall for a
Russian, Ms. Paige has songs but no character to work on: her first-act belter,
Nobody’s Side, leaves you stonily unmoved because you don’t really know who this
woman is. And when she and the Russian come to ballads of regretful parting, you
don’t give a hoot because you haven’t seen any tangible demonstration of their
love. Numbers in a musical are meant to intensify a situation in a way that
words alone couldn’t: here they are more or less pleasurable items whirling
around in a void. Trevor Nunn as director and Robin Wagner as designer are left
with the impossible task of staging a show that has little connection with
observable reality or dramatic sense (just why the Americans should be so keen
to ditch the defecting chess-master was never clear to me). All one can say is
that they do the job with cool efficiency.

The opening number, a potted history of CHESS danced by ivory pieces on
black-and-white squares, looks beautiful. The evocation of Merano, all
lederhosen, dirndls and White Horse Inn kitsch, is less embarassing than it
might have been. And the World Chess Championship hype is well caught on banks
of TV monitors arranged in CHESS-board pattern; though, on a technicality, it is
inaccurate to have the retired Robert Dougall reading BBC 2 News at a time of
Reagan-Gorbachev summits and, or a moral note, footage of Hungary in ’56 and the
Cuban Missile Crisis seems almost obscene in this context. Maybe the show is
telling us that we are all pawns in the hands of the Russian and American
political chess masters. But such a message seems defeatist nonsense in the
light of world reaction to the Chernobyl disaster. In the end one is left with a
clinically efficient production, a handful of good singing performances from
Tommy Körberg as The Russian, Ms. Paige as his mistress and John Turner as his
second. But a musical is only as good as its book and here one is confronted by
an inchoate mess. As H.J. Byron said, in another context, ”Life’s too short for
chess.”

Irvine Wardle, The Times, 15 May 1986

Pawns in a moral fable:

Endless hype, rubbernecking crowds, and cheers to raise the
roof-notwithstanding all this, CHESS turns out to be a fine piece of work that
shows the dinosaur mega-musical evolving into an intelligent form of life. The
usual tactic in this form of entertainment is to draw on every orchestral and
technical device the modern theatre has to offer so as to brainwash the audience
into the illusion that they are witnessing a great event. As this piece
approaches its climax with thunderous reprises of Sweden’s answer to “Land of
Hope and Glory”, something of this old habit persists; but for most of the way,
the show deploys its armoury of resources to putting over a strongly imagined
fable with wit, panache, passion, and a strong moral centre.

Suggested by the Fischer-Spassky tournament, CHESS follows the careers of two
world champions – one Russian, one American – from an opening match in Italy to
a showdown in Bangkok. Initially, with a Hindu temple number celebrating the
origins of the game followed by the arrival of the principals on Robert [Robin]
Wagner’s checkerboard stage with the two kings taking their places on opposite
sides of the board, you expect a plot cunningly geared to the moves of the
pieces. It is a false clue.

The real aim of Tim Rice’s book is to present the players as pawns in the
surrounding political game; so that for the defecting Anatoly, winning the
championship means that he loses his family, and his Western girl-friend loses
her Soviet father. The conditions of this game are set up from the start, with
Anatoly facing a brattish, fiercely anti-Communist opponent; on either side are
the apparatchiks of Russia and America, and, separating them, a referee who fits
into the scheme as a priest of chess. Despite Jacobean theatrical interest in
the game, CHESS seems the unlikeliest subject for a blockbusting spectacle of
this order; and its way of achieving that effect is partly through
straightforward decoration.

Every change of location from the Hindu prelude to the Thai finale brings out
a lavish tourist display. In the last of these, Trevor Nunn throws in a complete
guided tour of Bangkok, including massage parlours, boxing queues of delectable
courtesans, and more than Anthony Mingella showed of the city in a whole night
out at the Aldwych. But this rarely puts any strain on the narrative which, when
its moment comes, invariably emerges in perfect focus. Much of the show, indeed,
is extremely modest.

Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus’s score supports much of the vocal line
with unemphatic ostinators and vamps; and its home style might be called Moog
baroque. Its main success is in achieving expressive melody that exactly follows
the contours of Rice’s lyrics. They occasionally hit the spoken word, only to
rebound instantly into rhyme, but the line lengths get their own melody from
syncopation based on the singer’s thought processes sometimes stretching out
like elastic, sometimes contracting like a clenched fist.

The one narrative miscalculation lies in the treatment of the two rivals.
Anatoly (Tommy Körberg) has a searing top register and is most plausibly cast as
a thoughtful Russian with his heart in the right place. But he does not compare
in dramatic interest with the ghastly Trumper (Murray Head), first seen
insulting the folk-dancing welcome committee and going on to flatten a member of
the Press corps. Head plays him with obnoxious star quality, and goes on to give
an account of himself in one of the best numbers of the night “Pity the Child”,
but thereafter he fades out. Elaine Paige, as a torch-carrying second who
switches sides to the defector, contributes a vocally blazing performance,
though emotionally it counts for more in her divided duet with the abandoned
Soviet wife than with her menfolk.

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