Craig Revel Horwood
For now the 45-year-old dancer, choreographer and director is attempting to make exactly the right moves with Chess, which begins a rare UK tour starting at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal from the end of the month. The musical created by Sir Tim Rice and Abba’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus is regarded as a sleeping giant of a show because just the 1986 original West End production has been a commercial success.
“They say that no one has quite got the show right but I really disagree because every director has their own vision. I did the show nine years ago in Denmark with a massive company, 14 singers, an orchestra of 30 and a dance troupe as well. But I stylised it and loved doing it, so I have had experience of it and that’s what led me to want to do it as an actor-music show. The music is so fantastic I wanted to let the audience see what instruments actually play the music and support the drama,” says Horwood who was a lot keener to explore the love triangle of chessplaying rivals The American (James Fox from Fame Academy and Eurovision) and The Russian (Daniel Koek, who toured the North-East with West Side Story) and Florence (Shona White from West End triumph Wicked) rather than the game itself of the Cold War setting.
“It’s a love triangle and I haven’t harped on about chess too much or the Cold War which really has no relevance these days. To be honest chess as a game is far too slow for me, I’m a chequers sort of person. I adore people who play it but, for me, it’s not the highlight of an evening,” he jokes.
“Chess is a challenging games as is this musical to put on stage,” adds Horwood who feels that directing a series of similar productions at the Watermill Theatre gives him the chance to bring out the story of Chess.
But even the ultra-confident Aussie isn’t positive about his version going any further than the current tour. “I suppose it would be wonderful to see it working in the West End and see it given a new lease of life to a whole new generation. So, yes, you can say it’s an ambition but it’s not the main ambition… that’s the love aspect rather than Chess which is rather a boring game in theatrical terms to watch. So I’m using the chess pieces as a Greek chorus if you like to comment on these people’s emotions. Yes, it’s stlyised but it’s also a battleground which is the whole point that the musical is trying to make. So I’m trying to supply high-headed operatic staging and emotion to all those lush scenes that the music supplies. Hopefully, we’ll get away with it.”
With Tynesideborn producer Michael Harrison on board, it was almost a certainty that Horwood’s Chess would open at the Theatre Royal. But the director adds: “There’s a sympathetic audience as well, which helps when you want to get something right.
Newcastle is very vocal as well, which I like, because they’ll tell us the truth, so it’s a good place to get it up on its feet and start touring. The Strictly Come Dancing tour to the arena has always enjoyed an audience which is vocal and loud. People like a good time and Newcastle has my favourite bridge in the world.”
Horwood claims he deliberately didn’t try and recruit four star names because he sees Chess as an ensemble piece. “It’s generally written for four massive stars but all the cast of 28 is on stage all the time. No one leaves the stage apart from to change a hat, so it had to work as an ensemble, so we had to choose people who could do everything,” says Horwood, who added Poppy Tierney (Mary Poppins) and James Graeme (Phantom of the Opera) to the mix.
“The thing is I’m more famous because of being on television with Strictly while all these guys are so talented but not known outside theatre circles. The beauty of the celebrity that I have acquired does help bring a TV audience to something like this. Everyone knows One Night in Bangkok and I Know Him So Well but people don’t know they are attached to this wonderful story.”