The Stage’s glowing review of the CHESS in Concert cinema experience

I’ve not been to one of the NT Live broadcasts yet, in which a play is beamed live from the National Theatre to cinemas around the country and even the world; but last night I went to a Shaftesbury Avenue cinema to see the screening of a live performance I originally saw at the Royal Albert Hall in May 2008 of a concert version of the musical Chess, and here’s an amazing thing: it was even better on screen that it was in person.

I wrote here at the time about the history of the show, and the tiny part I had once played – or at least been witness to – when it transferred, all too briefly, to Broadway.

The spectacular Royal Albert Hall version was not only an attempt to rehabilitate a great score in the concert conditions that it which it had always worked best, but also to create an ‘official’ version of what has become a much muddled and interfered with property.

And seeing it on screen last night proved that the work has paid off: easily the punchiest and most memorable of all the original pop theatre scores of the 80s, the “problem” has always been laid at the door of the book, whose story and lyrics were created by Tim Rice. But there’s no problem following it, at least when you can hear every word – and that’s where the screen version wins out on the live.

Whereas I complained in my May 2008 blog that Idina Menzel, for instance, was frequently rendered inaudible in the Royal Albert Hall’s unforgiving acoustic, here her powerhouse singing is crystal-clear and so is the radiance of her personality.

You may lose instead some of the sense of occasion of actually being there; but the benefits far outweigh the losses. In the high-definition pictures and sound, every performance resonates far larger than it did when viewed from the other side of the Royal Albert Hall.

And even if, intriguingly, you can spot in close-up detail that Josh Groban is one of those rare American performers who doesn’t have perfect teeth, he is in every other sense the perfect leading man: I said here last May that he should do more musicals, and I only wish he would.

This is one of the greatest leading man performances I have ever seen in a musical, anywhere: there’s a depth, passion, and range to his singing that I’ve rarely experienced in a theatre. Only Philip Quast’s still-unrivalled solo cabaret turn in the Divas at the Donmar season back in 2002, and Antonio Banderas in the Broadway revival of Nine in 2003, rival him in my personal pantheon.

But then this production is cast in strength throughout. Adam Pascal also brings a sexy allure – and full vocal attack — to the role of the American chess player Freddie Trumper.

I have previously noted how, in another musical coincidentally with Tim Rice lyrics, Aida, Pascal managed to lose his body hair en route to that show’s Broadway opening night; it wasn’t possible, even in high definition, to discern whether he’s managed to grow it back below the white tee-shirt he was wearing for Chess, but either way it is good to see him growing older so handsomely.

Last night’s screening saw a turn-out of cast members that included David Bedella (soon to return to playing Frank ‘n’ Furter on the road in The Rocky Horror Show) and Clarke Peters in the audience. Clarke was borrowing a cigarette in the interval on the pavement outside (which is a better way of limiting his nicotine intake that owning his own, I suppose), but while the occasional cigarette is probably not going to harm that silkily husky voice too much, my partner recommended the Nicorette’s nasal spray that’s stopped him from smoking!

Also in the audience was Patricia Hodge, who told me (as her husband queued to pay for his pick ‘n’ mix in the interval) that she’s such a fan that she went to both nights at the Royal Albert Hall!

Ice’s note: Thanks to Paul Carter who wrote to say that Sir Tim Rice, Clarke Peters and Siobhan McCarthy were at the Odeon Covent Garden.

CHESS DVDs and CDS release date: 14 September

CHESS DVDs and CDs UK release date: Monday 14 September

Everybody’s playing the game/ but nobody’s rules are the same – The Stage


  • I was there last night at the 8pm screening I was gob smacked to see Tim Rice in the entrance
    I wasn?t sure whether he was leaving an earlier screening or going to that one,

    I agree it was an outstanding production and the digital projection was very good I have to say though Idina Menzels twangy American accent was the only slight irritation for me.

    I cant wait for a feature film.

  • I went to the St Andrews showing on Sunday aternoon. (By the way its an "old" style cinema with upstairs and down!)
    Paid £15 for my comfy seat with motorised leg and back rests, free drinks, and settled down. HD and sound was amazing! Sadly though two young girls of about 10 and 8 sat with the largest buckets of popcorn you have ever seen. Obviously not having been taught to close their mouths when munching, the whole first half hour was ruined with their ignorant noise. I finally got up and asked them to chomp more quietly – alas to no avail.
    Anway I digress. Thsi was amazing and came running home to put on the CD for the first time in years. Sadly could not find it so that’s a great excuse to buy the CD of this concert, with (at last) all the "linking" songs which I have never had on CD.
    Would highly recommend it.
    See you all on Sunday and in NY next week!!!
    (PS No kilt due to my fear of being lynched as a Scot who let a terrorist loose – Shamed our country!

  • I saw it last night and WOW! – it’s awesome to view on the big screen. Thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed it and can’t recommend it highly enough!

    Saw a certain Dominic "Ice" Wallis in the credits too – well done my friend.

  • I’ve already seen the live concert and the DVD but I went along anyway – it really suited the big screen and fantastic acoustics. I still had some doubts about whether Tim really has cracked a final version of chess but I’m a step closer to believing him after seeing it again on screen tonight. Chess is truly THE most wonderful musical score ever.

  • Saw it in the Edinburgh Filmhouse on Sonday. Absolutely blown away with the quality of the cast. I had the CD anyway, but thought all the performances sounded better on the big screen. Unable to get to Kristina concerts, but can only hope that these are also recorded and distributed in such great quality.

  • Hi,

    The General Manager at ODEON Covent Garden told me that the show was a great success, even the matinee performance half filled the theatre, but the evening was great, especially for the attendance of Tim Rice and his entourage!

    The DVD is released in a few days in the UK, and for those that like picture quality, it WILL be in the PAL format! Hip hooray!


  • even though i saw the show live at the Royal Albert Hall last year, i was excited to see it again even though i’ve got the DVD, but i was disappointed at the poor quality of the showing at Guidford Odeon on monday 7th 2009. the show was fantastic as always dispite the numerous times i have watched it.

  • Saw the Truro showing – my daughter was the usherette so I got VIP treatment….. It was great – especially Josh Groban who was amazing. My daughter is classically trained and much prefers his singing to that of a musical theatre trained voice.

  • I was up as Newcastle at the weekend and the Local paper there gave the Chess in concert DVD a stunning 5 star review.

  • Watched the DVD this afternoon (mines NTSC!!!) anyway… I have to be totally honest and own up – I cried through most of it. What a powerhouse of a performance and truly a mystery as to why this has never had the mass recognition it deserves. How happy am I???

  • Chess was absolutely fab, as long as you overlooked the incredibly poor voice of Idina Menzel.

    Couldnt they have dubbed her voice ?

Please leave a comment...