Preview: Chess, Theatre Royal, Newcastle by Gordon Barr, Evening Chronicle.
A new adaptation of hit musical Chess gets its world premiere next week in Newcastle. Entertainment Editor Gordon Batt was invited for an exclusive sneak preview at rehearsals.
It’s fair to say I came away from the Chess rehearsal rooms in Kennington, London, with more than an air of excitement about me.
I had spent the afternoon watching a cast of incredibly talented actor musicians being put through their paces during just the first week of rehearsals and already much of what I had seen had taken my breath away.
I’m a bit of a Chess aficionado, having seen the original production in London’s West End in the late 80s and later inferior touring versions of the musical, written by ABBA’s Benny and Bjorn with lyricist Tim Rice.
It’s a difficult one to stage – but from what I have seen, director Craig Revel Horwood and Wallsend-born producer Michael Harrison, are on to an out-and-out winner.
Shona White plays Florence
It’s going to be saucy, fiery and visually stunning, with an LED chess board and computer generated scenery.
The cast are mainly actor musicians – there is no separate orchestra, they do all the singing, dancing, acting and instruments themselves – and it is breathtaking.
“It’s really exciting for me, I’ve never worked this way before,” Shona White, who plays Florence, tells me in a break from rehearsals.
“From day one we had that incredible sound in the room, which is fabulous as it is always great to sing with the band.
“We’re spoilt really, and they are all so talented. I don’t play any instruments but some of those people are playing five different instruments.
“Plus they are singing at the same time, while fiddling, and then they have to get up and dance too, and they have to memorise everything off by heart. It is incredible!”
James Fox, who plays her husband, The American, adds: “The talent of these people, every day, is astonishing. Initially when I auditioned for the role I had no idea it was an actor/musician type thing.
James Fox is playing The American
“So when they told me I could play the guitar in the show, that was a big plus for me as if you take a long tour like this as a guitarist you are going to miss playing the guitar on stage. To get to combine the two worlds, it is great.”
Starring in Chess, which is at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, from August 27 to September 11, is a dream come true for Shona.
“I’m absolutely thrilled, I have to say. I saw the production years ago at the Edinburgh Playhouse, when I was about 15. It was Rebecca Storm who was playing the part of Florence.
“I thought she was absolutely wonderful and from that moment on I wanted to play that part – it was on my list of parts I want to play when I grow up.”
James adds: “I was familiar with some of the songs – One Night In Bangkok and Pity The Child – which are two of the songs my character Freddy sings. But the musical as a whole was new to me. It’s really impressive, it’s unbelievable stuff.”
Craig Revel Horwood is bringing sex, style and sauciness to the piece, focusing in on the love triangle at the centre of the musical.
“Craig is brilliant as a director. It is a pleasure to come in every day,” admits James.
Chess gets its world premiere in Newcastle and both Shona and James can’t wait to return to the city.
“I love Newcastle. I’ve played there a few times with Rocky Horror and the 60s musical Shout!
“The city’s got a great buzz about it. We’re there for three weeks so we will have some time to settle in a bit,” says Shona.
Welshman James adds: “It’s always been a great place to go for me.
“I find the South Welsh and the North East people are often linked together. I am often mistaken for a Geordie.”