The “definitive” version of CHESS to premiere at London’s Union Theatre

CHESS at the Union Theatre in London will run from 13 February to 16 March 2013

CHESS is on its way back to London! A brand new production is set to hit the city in February 2013.

The original West End production of CHESS opened in May 1986. It featured many hit songs including One Night in Bangkok and I Know Him So Well and ran for nearly three years, before being reworked for a misconceived Broadway debut that saw the show close after a mere eight weeks.

Multiple versions have since been staged around the world, using the hit songs as their basis but Sir Tim Rice who co-wrote the original musical with Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, expressed a determination to create an English-language version with his official seal of approval.

“To think that the magnificent music of Björn and Benny had only been known to the world for ten years when we embarked upon CHESS is extraordinary. The world now knows that their music is timeless and lasting.” he said.

When the updated work was first performed in concert at the Royal Albert Hall in May 2008, Sir Tim (who is to receive a special prize for his outstanding contribution to musical theatre at this year’s Olivier Awards), called it “the definitive version” of the story.

“In essence, CHESS is as it was in 1984,” he stated.

Sir Tim Rice, has now given the Union Theatre exclusive permission to use the new adaptation to mount a fully staged version of this epic musical.

The story involves a romantic triangle between two players in a World Chess Championship, and a woman who manages one of them and falls in love with the other. Although the protagonists were not intended to represent any specific individuals, the characters’ personalities are loosely based on those of Victor Korchnoi and Bobby Fischer.

The new stage version, which runs from 13 February (including two preview nights before the premiere on 15 February) to 16 March 2013.

Some of the cast set to play CHESS in 2013

The musical will feature a cast of sixteen drawn from the West End and Broadway including Phantom of the Opera‘s Sarah Galbraith (Florence), and Nadim Naaman (Anatoly), Jesus Christ Superstar’s Tim Oxbrow (Freddie), and Spring Awakening‘s Natasha Barnes (Svetlana).

The Union Theatre is a tiny venue, with only around 50 seats available per performance so if you want to go and see this brand new adaptation, you had better make your move soon (link to ticket office below) as performances are selling out already.

Related links:


  • All musicals from Björn and Benny are super. They write the best music in the world. Thank you.


  • I used to have breakfast at the union theatre café,
    its very well situated near Shakespeare’s globe, the site of the Rose theatre, the Tate modern, and close to Borough market.
    I think the Omens are good for this production.

  • The run is now completely sold out and rehearsals haven’t even started.

  • Apparently there are plenty of seats available still as only 60% of seats are sold on line. You have to ring the box office to get them. Its the first production at the theatre which has sold out with the online sales. Still only limited availability though.

  • I found this great interview with the Director of the new production of Chess
    Christopher Howell.
    It sounds like it going to be outstanding !

  • Intriguingly west end frame has another interview with

    Gillian Kirkpatrick, a woman playing Molokov.

  • First review found from West End Frame

    Union Theatre
    Reviewed on Friday 15th February 2013 (Press Night)

    “The story involves a romantic triangle between two players in a World Chess Championship, and a woman who manages one of them and falls in love with the other.”

    I find it baffling that this is the first time Chess has been fully staged in London since the original production which ran at the Prince Edward Theatre from 1986–1989. The music, by ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (lyrics by Tim Rice) is very distinctive. The score has moments of intensity and pure vulnerability and really digs deep inside each character. The story is quite strange for a musical but somehow it works. I would love to know how Tim Rice came up with the initial idea!

    This revival takes many risks, the biggest one probably being that the Union Theatre is so tiny, but believe me… it works. The Union Theatre could not be more perfect for this production. The cast are literally at arms length. Christopher Howell and Steven Harris’ direction is mind blowing. The most beautiful, unique visual images were created by the precise staging. This is something which can only be achieved in a theatre so small. I would love to go again and sit in a different seat because the whole experience would be so different, Chess provides a very personal experience.

    The cast are out of this world. There are not words to describe Sarah Galbraith’s performance as Florence Vassy. All I can say is that she is a star. Sarah has already had an amazing career but I predict a bright future. Natasha J. Barnes is the dark horse of the show. Just as I was becoming content she stepped into the spotlight to sing Someone Else’s Story and completely blew me away. Together, Sarah Galbraith and Natasha J. Barnes give a stunning rendition of I Know Him So Well, one of the most iconic songs in musical theatre history.

    Tim Oxbrow seemed to struggle vocally at times but his portrayal of Frederick Trumper was consistently passionate. Nadim Naaman was very good as Anatoly Sergievsky. His voice is sublime. The ensemble are strong, I particularly enjoyed moments where they were singing off stage and voices were coming from all over – the effect was incredible.

    I don’t think this production is completely perfect. I found a few moments confusing and at times it was hard to see what was going on. However, I arrived at the Union Theatre feeling tired and run down after a full on week reviewing a show each night. I left the Union Theatre on fire (metaphorically, of course). Chess filled me with so many emotions and completely changed the way I felt. It is a very powerful and unique piece of theatre, I am still buzzing. I lost myself in the music and completely fell in love with the show. Therefore I think five stars are thoroughly deserved.

    Something about this production of Chess is very special but I can’t quite work out what is is. Why don’t you go and see it for yourself and see if you can put your finger on it?

    The entire run of Chess is nearly sold out. You can look for tickets online ( but it’s probably best to call the Box Office: 020 7261 9876. Book immediately to avoid disappointment.

    Reviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

  • Another review from Front Row Dress

    Chess – Union Theatre – Friday 15 February ****

    I’ve been semi-resident in the stalls since I could undo a choc ice wrapper by myself, so I’m old enogh to have caught the original London run of the Tim Rice/Benny & Bjorn big hair musical back when shoulder pads were de rigueur and no self-respecting boy’s bathroom cabinet was complete without a salon size bottle of Elnett ultra hold. This newly updated version, sanctioned by Sir Tim, promises to add clarity to the murky tale of political machinations and a doomed love story played out against the backdrop of cold war chess tournaments.

    Designer Ryan Dawson Laight has reconfigured the Union’s auditorium to a thrust, with seating around three sides of a white edged square echoing a chess board. Black and white gauze panels hang at the back as if the squares have floated up and away from the playing surface. The theme continues with Laight’s monochrome costumes occasionally pierced with a shaft of colour.

    Featuring two stonking lead performances from the phenomenal Sarah Galbraith (last seen at the Union in Steel Pier and surely bound for a long and illustrious career) as Florence, a Hungarian émigré now resident in Britain, and the wonderful Nadim Naaman as Anatoly, the Russian chess master who falls in love with her and defects but can never forget his homeland, this is constantly engaging and often thrilling.

    With strong female support from Gillian Kirkpatrick’s iron lady Alexandra, the red-clad head of Anatoly’s team, and Natasha J Barnes as Svetlana, his deserted wife, there is much to admire as the cast tackle a myriad of emotions and the complex score (Mamma Mia this ain’t). Only Craig Rhys Barlow’s lacklustre referee-cum-narrator Arbiter, who should be a pivotal player but here seems extraneous, and Tim Oxbrow as American celebrity chess champion Frederick, singing at the very edge of his range and discomforting when struggling with the high notes, fail to match their female counterparts. Having said that, Obxrow’s act two opener One Night In Bangkok is a definite highlight, suiting his voice and character to a tee.

    Simon Lambert’s six piece band of piano, guitar, bass, drums, violin & cello have a whale of a time with Christopher Peake’s superb new arrangements and, as always at the Union, the lighting, this time designed by Ben M Rogers, is simply exquisite.

    Both Christopher Howell and Steven Harris are credited with direction and staging and are to be congratulated for having given this often too earnest virtually sung-through show a much needed makeover. The story is clear and we are given a simple narrative arc. There are some lovely delicate touches in the choreography and a gorgeous tap-dancing typewriting scene is one of many moments of pure genius.

    The downsides really stem from the show itself. Firmly rooted in the dour eighties mega-musical era, laughs are thin on the ground and it all takes itself a little too seriously (we get the chess/politics allegory, we’re not that stupid, there is no need to spell it out time and time again).

    As always, the Union boxes way above its weight giving us a production that defies its location in a tiny railway arch in the back streets of Southwark to often soar and only occasionally disappoint. By the time Sarah Galbraith is centre stage at the end of act two giving us a beautifully restrained reprise of the hit-that-never-was, Anthem, any reservations fly out of the door and it is a wonder to behold an artist of this stature at such close quarters. I doubt she’ll be playing rooms of this size for much longer.

    Booking until 16 March 2013, a qualified triumph – Chess

  • Back Stage Pass review:

    Theatre Review: Chess – Union Theatre, London ✭✭✭✭
    Written By Steve Stubbs on Sunday, 17 February 2013 | 09:19


    Union Theatre, London

    Review by Sebastian Petit

    Saturday 16th February 2013: I have long been a fan of the Abba boys’ musical and consider their score to be as strong as the other two 80’s mega musicals “Les Miserables” and “Phantom”. However there is no denying that the book has huge problems. Tim Rice has admitted as much and even invited companies performing the musical to prune and re-order the work. Over the years I have seen most of the major productions ranging from Trevor Nunn’s blockbuster original through to Craig Revel Horwood’s camp actor-musician disaster which did the rounds a couple of years back. All of the productions had something new to offer but none of them solved all the problems. (A couple even added a few new ones of their own) I have become convinced that a courageous director needs to take a large pair of scissors to the score and pare it back to the essentials. Time and time again scenes duplicate already established scenarios. For instance the Press Conference scene is entirely unnecessary as it merely re-establishes the fact that Freddie Trumper (based loosely on Bobby Fischer) is a loose cannon and hates communists. This is clearly and economically established in the opening scene at the Merano railways station – Why say it again? There are several other examples such as the wholesale repeat of the entire Chess tournament music and the entirely unconvincing reconciliation scene between Trumper and Sergeyevsky (inserted in the original London production). Then there are illogical repeats most damagingly the use of the “You and I” duet (originally only at the end of the concept album) in a scene near the beginning of Act 2. The atmosphere of the music is regretful and shot through with painful nostalgia but at this point in the story Florence and Anatoly are still very much together so the music rings false.

    I had really hoped that the Union Theatre team might take the score and book and shake it into a more economic shape. Alas, apart from a very few minor cuts they performed the score and book pretty much as published. An opportunity missed. That said an extremely hard working company of 16 made as good a case as possible for the work in its original state and fielded several notable principal performances.

    Sarah Galbraith
    Photo by Mug Photography
    Strongest amongst these was Sarah Galbraith’s powerhouse Florence Vassy. Created by Elaine Paige, the role requires those sort of platinum coated vocal cords and Galbraith didn’t disappoint. All the cast sang without the benefit of microphones and Galbraith certainly didn’t require one: Indeed there were moments where she could afford to dial it back a bit. My only slight quibble was the distortion of some of the vocal lines by the addition of Whitney Houston type vocal acrobatics. Impressive in isolation they sat uneasily within the context of the music and the part and Galbraith doesn’t need them to impress.

    The role of Anatoly is infuriatingly underwritten but Nadim Naaman created a sympathetic character onstage and sang with both power and sensitivity. His leading of the massive Endgame ensemble was particularly fine. It was sad that the decision was taken to remove the choral lines from the end of “Anthem” as it makes a rousing end to the first act.

    I was disappointed that the director, Christopher Howell, made no apparent attempt to flesh out Freddie’s character and add a sense of light and shade. Tim Oxbrow came over as a 1st class s**t which meant that “Pity the child” appeared out of nowhere and it was almost impossible to imagine why Florence loved him at the beginning of the story. Oxbrow did what he could within these confines and actually managed to make something of the silly reconciliation scene. The vocal line is cruelly high and exposed and Oxbrow, though he undoubtedly has all the notes (up to a top D!), suffered most form the lack of amplification.

    The character of Svetlana is introduced far too late in the day for one to have much sympathy for her but Natasha J Barnes sang very well in “Someone else’s story” and “I know him so well”. To my mind the first of these numbers could usefully be resited in Act 1 so as to introduce the character earlier.

    Sarah Galbraith and Nadim Naaman
    Photo by Mug Photography
    I am in two minds about the changing of Molokov to Molokova. I admired Gillian Kirkpatrick’s performance immensely but I constantly missed the rich bass line that was written for the originally male character. Neil Stewart was a suitably slimy and loathsome Walter de Courcy and his characterisation was subtly aided by his startling resemblance to Gregory Itzin who played the corrupt and murderous President on “24”.

    Simon Lambert and his band of 6 musicians make a very good case for Christopher Peake’s arrangements. The level of sound is just about right for an unamplified cast and there are virtually no issues of balance. I did wonder whether that was the case if one was sitting in the seats next to the band.

    One slightly negative point was the noisy and fidgety lighting which often failed to keep up with the intricately plotted movement and involved some very dubious “live” light moves which were profoundly distracting.

    Despite my disappointment that the Union did not grasp the nettle of the unsatisfactory book and break out the pruning shears this was a very impressive evening. I rather hope it gets a transfer as it would benefit from a larger stage.

    4 stars ✭✭✭✭

    Listings info
    Union Theatre
    Run: 13th February – March 16th
    Time: Tuesday to Saturday @ 7.30pm
    Sunday 2.30pm & 7pm
    Prices: Tickets £18 with £16 concessions.

  • UK Theatre Network review:

    Published by: Carolin Kopplin on 16th Feb 2013 | View all blogs by Carolin Kopplin

    My land’s only borders lie around my heart.

    Released in 1984, the concept album of Chess was a critical and commercial success. The original West End production debuted in May 1986 and ran at the Prince Edward Theatre for nearly three years. In 2008, a concert version featuring Idina Menzel, Josh Groban and Adam Pascal was launched, but there hasn’t been a stage production since the 1980s, which is hard to believe considering the quality of the musical. Tim Rice, who wrote the original lyrics for Chess, the music was of course written by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, who formed half of ABBA, has now given exclusive permission to the Union Theatre to premiere the new stage adaptation.

    Based around the game of chess, this musical is also a metaphor for the Cold War. Like the Olympic Games, winning the World Championship in chess also was a matter of prestige, to show that “we are better than our enemy”. US World Champion US World Champion Frederick Trumper and USSR challenger Anatoly Sergiesvsky meet at Merano, Italy, for the World Championship in 1979. The town dignitaries are very excitied and the merchandisers know that this will be good business. The Arbiter declares that the first man to win six games will win the title – and the competitors arrive. Frederick makes no secret of his hostilty towards his Russian competitor: “All Soviets deserve abuse.” His arrogant and aggressively anti-communist attitude do not endear him to the international press, including the clueless TV correspondent Angela St. Angelo, who acts more like a cheerleader babe than a serious journalist. Frederick’s manager and lover Florence, whose family was murdered during the Hungarian uprising of 1956, has no love for the communists but she does not approve of Frederick’s behaviour. Meanwhile Molokova, the Soviet official assisting Anatoly, tries to persuade him that his competitor is insane and therefore easy to beat. Anatoly does not believe her propaganda and becomes fidgety during a match which makes Frederick nervous. Eventually, Frederick storms out. When Florence arranges a meeting between the two competitors on a mountain top to calm the waves, Frederick does not appear. Instead, Florence and Anatoly get to know each other and fall in love, which leads to a series of complications.

    One might think that the Union Theatre is too small for this musical but the intimacy of the venue adds to the show: The actors are literally at arms length which makes for very intense moments. Skilfully directed by Christopher Howell and Steven Harris, the cast is fantastic throughout. Sarah Galbraith gives a wonderful performance as Florence Vassy. Her duet with Natasha J. Barnes as Svetlana Sergievskaya of “I Know Him So Well” is one of the many highlights of this evening. Nadim Naaman gives a sensitive and convincing portrayal of Anatoly Sergievsky who has to choose between his country and Florence. Tim Oxbrow is very good as Frederick Trumper whose adolescent behaviour endangers his credibility as a chess champion. Craig Rhys Barlow is arrogant and aloof as the Arbiter who sees himself as absolutely incorruptible. Gilian Fitzpatrick is suitably sinister as the scheming Alexandra Molokova. Natalie McQueen is very funny as the naive TV girlie Angela St. Angelo.

    I urge you to see this show. Hurry, the run is almost sold out!

    By Carolin Kopplin

    Until 16 March 2013



    BWW Reviews: CHESS, Union Theatre, February 15 2013

    Saturday, February 16, 2013; 02:02 PM – by Gary Naylor

    Rather like two nasty schoolboys contending that “my dad is harder than your dad”, the USSR and the USA never missed an opportunity to squabble in the playgrounds of post-war sport. Bizarrely (and things get bizarre pretty quickly whenever his name comes up), the rise of the John McEnroesque Bobby Fischer gave the two blocs the chance to lock horns across the chessboards of the 70s, as the American challenged the Soviets’ long held supremacy over the black and white squares. From such unpromising material, Sir Tim Rice, with Benny and Bjorn in the Lloyd-Webber role, fashioned the 80s musical Chess (at the Union Theatre until 16 March).

    If that’s more exposition than you were bargaining for, think again. Chess is packed with exposition – the history of the game, the Budapest Uprising of 1956, backstories of characters – if Simon Schama were to walk loopily on stage to explain the Bay of Pigs, we wouldn’t be surprised.

    Saddled with all that work to do and with Sir Tim’s clunky rhymes (is it just me that finds listening to his lyrics like walking down a staircase with some of the steps missing?), the cast have their work cut out and some, if not all, scrape a 6-5 win. Sarah Galbraith, as the object of rival grandmasters’ desire, sings with conviction and her duet (“I Know Him So Well”) with Natasha J Barnes’ Svetlana is the standout song.

    Unfortunately, these two strong performances (and strong women) are not matched by Nadim Naaman, too passive as Russian iceman Anatoly Sergievsky and Tim Oxbrow too scowly as American badboy Frederick Trumper. Both men’s parts are so underwritten that it’s hard to discern what these women see in these somewhat unpleasant individuals.

    There’s a host of Cold War stereotypes and a few wobbly accents, but a fine turn from Natalie McQueen as a less than happy TV news reporter is a lot of fun. The tunes, as you would expect, are easy on the ear, if a little samey over a long show.

    And that’s the issue really. The show feels very long – there’s just too much shovelled into the book. Sir Tim Rice may be a knight, but, like the game itself, Chess seems to have too many variations for me to follow.

    Read more about BWW Reviews: CHESS, Union Theatre, February 15 2013 by



    Music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and lyrics by Tim Rice, based on an idea by Tim Rice
    Produced by Sasha Regan for the Union Theatre
    Union Theatre
    From 13 February 2013 to 16 March 2013
    Review by Sandra Giorgetti

    Union Theatre – Chess – Sarah Galbraith as Florence
    Credit: Mug Photography
    The fact that tickets for The Union’s production of Chess are now sold out is testimony to the appetite that clearly exists not only for the excellent work that makes this venue a fringe musical landmark but also for this little–seen show from the 1980s.

    Staged, with real flair, for this intimate setting by Christopher Howells and Steven Harris, it deserves a transfer albeit to a venue which will preserve its scale—somehow the compact setting here has helped concentrate the small amount of substance for good outcome.

    Originally Chess came to life as a concept album (a device well–used by lyricist Tim Rice with his earlier collaborator Andrew Lloyd–Webber) the huge success of which helped secure a West End opening. Nominated for three Olivier Awards but receiving none, the run of the 1986 London production is nevertheless counted in years whilst its Broadway equivalent counts its run only in months.

    Success seemed to dwindle with every reincarnation. The move from vinyl to stage obviously required that there be some reworking, and the UK to US transition saw further alterations, not least Trevor Nunn (already the second director) bringing in a new book writer. But these were merely part of a helical series of re–writes and re–imaginings that has continued across the decades.

    Billed as the definitive version, this production has the blessing of Tim Rice, although notably no book writer is now credited. Songs that had been cut in previous versions are reinstated and some lyrics are tweaked, at least as against the original.

    The central story however remains the same. Amidst a media circus, Russian Anatoly Sergievsky is pitted against American Freddie Trumper for the title of world chess champion. It is a metaphor for the Cold War hostilities, which is then laboured with the machinations of the game of chess and the chicanery of the players’ respective management teams trying to get the propaganda upper hand.

    Juicing up what already risks being heavy–handed is the love that changes everything—well changes sides at least. Trumper not only looses the championship to Sergievsky but also loses his woman, Florence Vassy, for whom Sergievsky defects. The manoeuvring of both managements by mutual agreement of these three plus the abandoned wife, shows that no one escapes being a pawn in the big game.

    Sarah Galbraith gives a vocally engaging and emotionally convincing performance as Florence Vassy. Nadim Naaman is outstanding as Anatoly Sergievsky and Tim Oxbrow, who was so subtle and tender in Legacy Falls, here plays at the opposite end of the scale as brash self–hating Freddie Trumper.

    Gillian Kirkpatrick is excellent as the conniving Alexandra Molokova and Natasha J Barnes is transfixing in the solo “Someone Else’s Story” as the misused wife, Svetlana. The ensemble singing is richly toned and a real joy to hear.

    ABBA duo, Benny Andersson’s and Björn Ulvaeus’s timeless score—far superior to the lyrics they enhance—benefits from the crisp musical arrangement of Christopher Peake which adds refreshingly contemporary zing. Musical director Simon Lambert leads a first class band of violin, cello, bass, guitar and drums.

    Christopher Howells’s and Steven Harris’s direction is skilful. The progression of events lacks some clarity towards the end but the structure becomes reliant on narration and is suddenly left without so is much to blame. The closing image which sees Florence symbolically leaving her past behind her is off the cheesy scale but on the whole the delivery of this flawed piece is virtually faultless.


    Heaven help my heart: Chess at the Union Theatre

    This revival of Chess – music by Benny Andersson and Björn Alvaeus, with lyrics by Tim Rice – is thrillingly staged at the tiny Union Theatre, but this intensely-focused, deeply-felt, imaginative and intelligent production only exposes the weaknesses in the original piece.

    Chris O’Shaughnessy17th February 2013

    All sections
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    Union Theatre
    Until 16-Mar
    See listing details
    Chess was a concept musical released as a music album before it was ever properly staged; therein lies perhaps most of its artistic problems. Nevertheless, it ran for three years in the West End from 1986 before failing on Broadway. Watching the new revival at the Union Theatre in Southwark, it is tempting to puzzle out why this should be.

    Using the age-old metaphor of a chess game – as old at least as Thomas Middleton’s 1624 A Game at Chess – to dramatize far-reaching political clashes, the plot focuses on the Russian Anatoly Sergievsky and the American Frederick Trumper, and their frustrated attempts to find a measure of integrity as chess champions in a cold war setting c. 1970.

    Christopher Howell and Steven Harris, joint directors, place the action within a dislocated chessboard designed by Ryan Dawson Laight. Individual chessboard squares have become detached and hover mid-air as a back-drop, the board itself a black white-edged square. Within this unforgiving abyss the action is played out.

    Contextualising the story in a prologue with a vivid physical-theatre depiction of the human suffering endured in the 1956 Hungarian Uprising (fight direction by Andrew Ashenden and Annie Duggan), with its continued impact on the lives of the principal players, the musical unfolds as a relentlessly grim and clear-eyed account of human casualties on both sides of the cold war. The artistic problem is that humanity itself hardly gets a look-in. All is subterfuge, deception, betrayal, and duplicity. A song, “Heaven Help my Heart”, feelingly sung by Sarah Galbraith, evokes this human cost. With a lack of engaging humanity in the two protagonists, the piece has at times an airless, clinical quality which, spread over two acts, is ultimately wearing. Even the celebrated “I Know Him So Well”, sung with rueful reflection by Sarah Galbraith and Natasha J. Barnes, does little to alleviate this.

    The splendid cast do their best, and the real strength of this production is in the superb choral singing which expresses a pulsating emotional and spiritual gravity which the repressed, circumspect, underwritten, principal characters do not have. Notwithstanding their professional commitments to the game, Anatoly (Nadim Naaman) and Frederick (Tim Oxbrow) continually try to break free from their celebrity prison, with Anatoly becoming involved with Florence Vassy (Sarah Galbraith), Frederick’s girlfriend/manager, despite having a long-suffering wife, Svetlana (Natasha J. Barnes), at home. In this pressurised existence, constantly photographed and videoed, something has to give. It leads to the defection of Anatoly to the West.

    Overseeing all is the Arbiter (Craig Rhys Barlow), a kind of sardonic MC, commentating not only on the chess game but on the story as it unfolds. Add in the conniving, mischievous Alexandra Molokova (a scene-stealing Gillian Kirkpatrick) as a trouble-making KJB agent, and the plot is thick with intrigue and a genuinely disturbing political mix which the recent po-faced One Hour Eighteen Minutes failed to achieve. The musical, with its driving dissonant music (lean, sharp musical arrangements by Christopher Peake; musical direction by Simon Lambert), plays out like a dark meditation on corruption at all political levels. Heaven help my heart, indeed.

    Tim Rice’s lyrics – especially in their colloquial phrasing and casual rhymes – do help to breathe life into the mechanical proceedings. Nadim Naaman tries to find dignity in Anatoly, whereas Tim Oxbrow finds an undercurrent of guilt as Frederick. Natalie McQueen has a wickedly-funny cameo as a deep-south television reporter, Angela St Angelo, relaying each calamity with smiling, lip-smacking relish. Katie Bradley and Wayne Rodgers almost stop the show as tap-dancing bureaucrats.

    Perhaps Chess might better be played in one continuous act, in a condensed version of the original. This would maintain the pressurised momentum and make dramatically acceptable the repressed humanity of the characters as they are caught up in all the political games-playing. As it is, Howell and Harris’s production presents the existing show in thrilling and well-sung mode, and is another example of a fringe theatre production which can rival anything the West End has to offer in quality.

    Date reviewed: Saturday 16th February 2013

  • review

    Review: Chess, Union ✭✭✭✭✭
    Emily Hardy is captured by the power of Chess at the Union.
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    Sarah Galbraith as Florence Vassy
    It’s difficult to review when lost for words. The Union Theatre has a reputation, second to none, for hosting reincarnations of little-known, under-performed musicals, albeit with the frequent accompaniment of rumbling trains over-head. It was going to be a challenge to top 2012’s explosive Steel Pier, powerfully staged on the traverse, but this superb production of Chess, directed by Christopher Howell and Steven Harris (they do say two heads are better than one), has done just that, and consequently another musical has been resuscitated within the four, drafty walls of the Union.

    As a refreshing example of how intelligence and artistic integrity can prevail over gimmicks and budgets, this production will be heralded and remembered, not for its celebrity leads or its all singing, all dancing set, but for its quality. Simple staging blocks, used to create levels, are re-positioned by the performers as smoothly as chess pieces, evoking both a literal and metaphorical game. Basic, representational costumes, clearly delivered lyrics and our own imaginations are more than sufficient to transform the small, black-box space into Budapest, Merano and Bangkok accordingly. With seating positioned on three sides of the auditorium, audience members feel like flies on the wall, peering from behind the venue’s columns, witnessing the proceedings described and overseen by the domineering Arbiter, played effortlessly by Craig Rhys Barlow. The often cloudy, confusing narrative unravels uncontrollably and the audience, dauntingly close, piece together the plot, salvaging what they can from a world that is far from black and white. Interestingly, the role played by the increasingly intrusive media within politics has particular pertinence for a 2013 audience; could the voyeuristic effect be further intensified if the audience sat on all four sides of the square?

    rarely do you see a cast – fringe, West End or otherwise -this consistently strong

    The problematic Chess has had very few revivals and varying degrees of success since its three-year, west end run during the 80’s. Whilst this is a 5 star production, the musical itself is worthy of 3 or 4 at the most. Chess has a hauntingly beautiful, well-known score that fuses patriotic military anthems with memorable, romantic ballads. But, it also has an over-ambitious book. Tim Rice’s epic, Cold War context makes for reduced characters who are difficult to like and romances that are hard to fathom. However, this production embraces the weaknesses. Benefiting from NOT being in the West End (sorry actors), the close proximity of the cast to the audience and the simplicity of the design draws out nuances from within the piece that were previously diluted or over-shadowed. We don’t need to like the characters anymore; we just feel the impact of the hit.

    Speaking of actors, rarely do you see a cast – fringe, West End or otherwise – this consistently strong; everyone is worthy of a mention. Rock-opera is vocally demanding and the ensemble rise to the challenge making the hairs on your arms stand up with their full, ressonant sound. The exchanges between Nadim Naaman and Sarah Galbraith, playing unlikely lovers Anatoly Sergievsky and Florence Vassy, are particularly beautiful – his voice smooth and chocolaty (enough to make any woman weak at the knees) and hers, incredibly powerful, gliding over the difficult score with ease. Natasha J. Barnes plays a suitably dejected and scorned Svetlana Sergievskaya, bringing an element of warmth and enduring love into the severe, ruthless world of battle. Her distinguished characterisation makes the over-done, I Know Him So Well, painfully fresh.

    This production reverberates as one that has ‘changed the game,’ raising the bar for London’s fringe.

    *****(5 stars)
    Runs until 16th March

  • Mark Shenton in The Stage reviews;

    Chess the Musical
    Published Monday 18 February 2013 at 11:32 by Mark Shenton
    The Union Theatre deservedly won this year’s Stage 100 fringe theatre of the year award, and Chess offers proof why. It is another of this theatre’s revelatory reclamations of a famously problematic yet powerfully scored show. It has arguably the best of all the 80s pop opera scores, and is thrillingly rendered in the unmiked conditions of this chamber theatre by a cast of 16 and superb band of six led by Simon Lambert, which is more than a third of the total audience watching it.
    That intimacy and power both amplify and clarify the sometimes convoluted drama as it brings the characters into unavoidably close-up focus. “Each game of chess means there’s one less variation left to be played,” we are informed in Tim Rice’s brilliantly clever and pointed lyrics to the opening song of the show, which he wrote to Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson’s insistently memorable tunes. Each production of Chess, by contrast, brings yet another variation being played to how the show is interpreted.
    Co-directors Christopher Howell and Steven Harris here add an opening montage that sets the scene with a violent massacre, which may not be too helpful for those not yet familiar with the backstory of Florence, the Hungarian born partner and lead team support to the American chess player Freddie Trumper whose competition with the Russian Anatoly Sergievsky for the World Chess Championship becomes a battle of wills, love and nationality on and off the chessboard.
    But elsewhere the shifting dynamics of the relationships between this central trio is rendered faultlessly, thanks to performances of fierce concentration and vocal power from Sarah Galbraith as Florence, Tim Oxbrow as Freddie and Nadim Naaman as Anatoly. There’s also terrific support all round from a magnificent, hard-working ensemble, which includes Gillian Fitzpatrick as an uncompromisingly scary leader of the Russian delegation Molokova (a character whose sex has been transposed from the usual Molokov).
    This production of Chess, in short, has all the right moves to make this Cold War musical feel red hot.

    Production information
    Union Theatre, London, February 13-March 16
    Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus (music), Tim Rice (lyrics)
    Christopher Howell, Steven Harris
    Union Theatre
    Cast includes:
    Sarah Galbraith, Tim Oxbrow, Nadim Naaman, Craig Rhys Barlow, Gillian Kirkpatrick, Natasha J Barnes
    Running time:
    2hrs 20mins

  • review:

    Venue: Union Theatre
    Where: Inner London
    Date Reviewed: 18 February 2013
    WOS Rating:
    Reader Reviews: View and add to our user reviews

    Well, here’s a turn-up. In 1986, Chess was a magnificent but heartless spectacle, with a battery of 128 television screens and a tsunami of lavish, noisy overkill; not half as good as this lean, mean and thrilling revival by Christopher Howell and Steven Harris at the Union.

    Even the complicated plot moves when the Cold War chess championship becomes a game of chess between the characters now seem not only plausible but inherently theatrical. The show, which I’d always understood to be an incurable “problem musical,” like Martin Guerre, proves to be no such thing.

    The score by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (definitely, and operatically, writing outside their Abba box), and lyrics by Tim Rice, have always enjoyed a devoted concert performance following. And that, I thought, was that.

    But this brilliant staging allows Rice’s superb lyrics – which are playful, witty and seriously inventive – full value; the music, too, is heard to maximum un-microphoned advantage. It’s a musical and literary pleasure from start to finish.

    Perhaps I was expecting a more drastic overhaul, but the story is the same, so is the structure. And it works. With just one remaining caveat: why is the American grand-master, Frederick Trumper – whom Tim Oxbrow plays impressively as a rasping combo of Robert Downey Jr and Serge Gainsbourg – such a thorough-going scumbag?

    His tantrums, when he walks off the stage in the first act contest in the Italian mountain village of Merano, revive memories of oddball Bobby Fischer in the 1972 championship, and there’s always a slight strain to the deliberate contrast between the champ and his dignified, circumspect Russian challenger, Anatoly Sergievsky (Nadim Naaman). But both actors sing with great skill and technical control, injecting dramatic tension by playing mind games to the hilt.

    In the Elaine Paige role of Florence Vassy, the grandmaster’s Hungarian-born grand mistress, who defects to the Russian side in a reversal of Anatoly’s own political asylum gambit (reminiscent of Rudolf Nureyev coming the West), Sarah Galbraith is truly outstanding – sexy, full-throated and dangerously devious.

    Her big duet with Anatoly’s abandoned wife (also superbly done, by Natasha J Barnes), “I Know Him So Well,” is sung icily, with poignancy and restraint, on either side of an invisible make-up mirror, just as Naaman doesn’t over-sell the big first act closing “Anthem,” anchoring it in the dramatic moment of a declaration to the Press.

    Song after song has the pithiness and attack of the best in rock oratorio”
    Song after song has the pithiness and attack of the best in rock oratorio, which is not the only reason Jesus Christ Superstar often bubbles under. Elements of double-cross and betrayal have a sacrilegious element, too, and Frederick turns complete Judas in his role as a media commentator, then adviser, in the second act championship in Bangkok.

    Sometimes at the Union you feel that not-so-great musicals – The Baker’s Wife, perhaps, or Godspell – look better merely because of the enforced intimacy. But this revival, steely and hard-edged, has an innate vitality, and validity, that bursts beyond the confines to plug an audience directly into a previously under-estimated (by me, at least) work of musical theatre art.

    The surprise opening of violence on the streets in the Hungarian Uprising is a bit unnecessary and naff, but otherwise the staging is faultless, from the Eurovision Song Contest-style media hype, to the diplomatic face-offs and conferences, all supervised by the sinister emcee, Craig Rhys Barlow’s mask-like Arbiter.

    Ingenious back and white design, with some cleverly tilting frames and panels, is by Ryan Dawson Laight, spot-on lighting by Ben M Rogers and top notch musical direction by Simon Lambert, leading a tight, committed small band from the piano in the wings. Unmissable.

    – by Michael Coveney


    Music: Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus

    Lyrics: Tim Rice

    Director: Christopher Howell and Steven Harris

    Reviewer: Ian Foster

    The Public Reviews Rating:

    With music from Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA and conceived by Tim Rice who also contributed the lyrics, the 1980s musical Chess had grand ambitions which have never really come to fruition as it remains a show that has been revised as often as it has been revived. This new production at the powerhouse of intimate musical theatre that is the Union is a version which has been sanctioned by Rice himself as the definitive version of this story of a love triangle in the world of international chess competitions set against the backdrop of the Cold War. But the potency of an intimate venue has to be carefully captured in order to make it truly work and this is where Chess comes a little unstuck.

    Ryan Dawson Laight’s design has recast the Union into a shallow thrust, the size of the theatre meaning that most of the seats end up on the sides. Not an issue at all in and of itself but Laight has a large platform take up most of the space at the rear of the stage and so much of the action is forced forward and this, combined with co-directors Christopher Howell and Steven Harris having the performers play predominantly straight ahead, results in a production that too rarely engages with the vast majority of its audience. For the handful of eight or so people facing the stage head-on, it must be marvellous but if the theatre were full, more people would actually see Florence’s back than her face during the bruisingly raw final scene – that two directors can misuse such an intimate space this way is certainly problematic.

    It is largely well performed though and for the female roles, the casting is pretty much perfect. Sarah Galbraith’s Florence – the woman who looks after one grandmaster, the American Freddie, but falls in love with his main rival, the Soviet Anatoly – brims with restrained feeling and quiet passion, able to beautifully deliver both the power of Nobody’s Side and the delicacy of Heaven Help My Heart within a heartbeat of each other. Natasha J Barnes has a glorious impact on the second half as Anatoly’s abandoned wife Svetlana and if their duet on I Know Him So Well is a little safe in its prettiness, Barnes smashes it on Someone Else’s Story. And in a gender-swapped role, Gillian Kirkpatrick makes a vivid impression as Molokova, Anatoly’s KGB-friendly second.

    There’s a little less success with the men. Nadim Naaman definitely has the rich vocal for the conflicted Anatoly but plays him with a touch too much reserve, one longs for a greater emotional depth to drive the character along. But Tim Oxbrow shows the strain as his rock vocal can’t always quite meet the challenges of Trumper’s part and Craig Rhys Barlow fails to make The Arbiter a sufficiently controlling presence in the story, he’s often just lost in the crowd of the company. It is clear though that the male roles just aren’t as well written, leaving the actors to fight an uphill battle.

    Simon Lambert’s six-strong band sounds better when the strings are higher in the mix than the more general homage to the 80s that never lets us forget when the show was written and though there are several classic songs in the show, the score as a whole has a wearying familiarity which is not helped by the dour nature and heavy-handedness of Tim Rice’s lyrics. And so though the show’s reputation may leave one questioning why it has taken so long for a revival to come back to London, the reality is clear to see that it is a somewhat problematic piece of theatre. This production addresses some of those issues and pulls together a female cast that is well worth the effort of securing a ticket, but also poses problems of its own to create a decidedly mixed bag.

    Runs until 16th March

  • review:


    February 18, 2013
    Chess is a musical of which many theatre enthusiasts can be forgiven for not knowing so well, given that a fully-staged London production has not graced the capital since the original West End run closed in 1989. The Union Theatre has righted that wrong with a tight and beautifully sung offering, which looks set to be one of the fringe musical highlights of 2013.

    Sarah Galbraith and Natasha J. Barnes make a formidable duo as Florence and Svetlana respectively, dispensing their outstanding vocals with ease to elegantly compliment both each other and their male counterparts Tim Oxbrow, as the crass American champion Frederick, and Nadim Naaman, the Russian challenger Anatoly who defects to the West and by twist of fate returns as the Western champion at the next tournament.

    The cast of sixteen both look and sound impressive from the story’s opening in 1956 Budapest, via Italy’s Merano to Bangkok a quarter of a century later. Choreography is richly varied, including a charmingly simple yet amusingly clever tap routine set to the keying of a manual typewriter. A six piece band, lead by musical director Simon Lambert accentuates the work, the strings sounding particularly striking, sometimes even menacing.

    Tension is high as superpowers battle it out via the chess board, refreshing therefore that directors Chris Howell and Steven Harris seize opportunities to nurture comedy when appropriate. Adam Hills is given freedom to make his Mayor of Merano a camp parody; while the tournament’s opening delights with cheer-leader style dancers. Angela (Natalie McQueen) the over-the-top television presenter provides a source of constant humour too, her commentary serving as useful narration. Post interval opening number ’One Night in Bangkok’ could easily be one night in Heaven or any other ‘eighties gay club with the boys looking dashing in their braces and here choreography comes to the fore once again. By contrast, ‘The Soviet Machine’ returns the story to the dark days of oppression and spies around every corner yet it likewise is staged with confidence and flair, but this time the style is of Kalinka and Cossacks as the mood completely alters.

    ‘I Know Him So Well’ is one of those songs which represents far more than merely a standard from a famous musical. It signifies the Cold War, the struggle between socialism and capitalism, the cat-and-mouse clashes of Superpowers whether in the form of chess champions or Presidents. Happily, both female leads prove their abilities in earlier solos because their famous duet is understated here, where subtlety is favoured, while a haunting orchestral accompaniment delivers the power rather than the vocalists.

    The theatre is set up in an unusual ‘U’ configuration with a thrust stage, which is one I’ve not seen before at the Union. Extensive use of curtaining provides corridors around the edges of the auditorium enabling the cast to circulate the space out of audience view. I did notice that the directors have opted to present much of the show to the relatively few seats directly in front of the stage together with those stage-left so we would advise taking those in preference. Fortunately the size of the Union means that, on the whole, most viewing angles are adequate, but it nonetheless seems an odd decision.

    In terms of value for money, this one is hard to beat. It’s very nearly sold out so phone to check. Our advice is to get there early and place your name on the returns list because there’s a fair chance you may be lucky.

    – – – – – – – – – –

    Reviewed 16/02/13

    By Gareth Richardson

    13th Feb – 16th Mar 2013
    Union Theatre, London, SE1.

  • review:

    Chess – review
    Written by: Stephen St. Clement

    Union Theatre, London

    Given that the Union Theatre’s production of the rarely performed musical Chess comes with the official endorsement of its co-creator Sir Tim Rice, expectations are high for this first major London production of the show since 2008. So high, in fact, that by press night the entire one-month run had already sold out, rendering this review somewhat redundant. Nevertheless, it is well worth marking this latest, “definitive” chapter in the on-going saga surrounding a show which has undergone more rewrites than a BBC Newsnight Special.

    The scale of the story and eclectic nature of the musical score provide a great invitation to ambitious concept-driven staging, and the creative duo of Christopher Howell and Steven Harris appear only too happy to oblige. Their use of the space and choreography is strong and inspired, and they create several stunning images and set pieces of such discordant qualities and styles that they really shouldn’t all work together in one show. But, of course, they do.

    There are, however, occasions when their auteurship somewhat oversteps the mark: the added opening sequence of Budapest, its citizens being brutally interrogated and slaughtered by Soviet invaders, goes on far too long and adds little to our understanding of the story. Another significant change is the casting of the manipulative KGB agent Molokov as a woman – Alexandra Molokova, played by Gillian Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick performs with confidence and aplomb, and this reimagining of a major player affects a marked change on the game as a whole, though not always for the better: the added syllable does not scan well with the music, while the addition of a powerful female figure from the outset somewhat undermines the heroine Florence Vassy’s role as a woman fighting her corner in a man’s world.

    The standard of performances, both individual and ensemble, are largely superb – both highly intelligent and extremely committed: Tim Oxbrow’s electrifying and consistently intense electrifying portrayal of Freddy Trumper keeps the show rocketing along throughout; Nadim Naaman’s tortured hero Anatoly Sergievsky is thoroughly engaging; and Natasha J. Barnes plays Anatoly’s abandoned wife Svetlana with such wonderful subtlety and inner strength that it is impossible to take one’s eyes off her throughout her second half performance.

    The strength of the concept, the commitment of the cast as a whole, and the quality of the musical itself more than makes up for the odd technical hitch, the occasional creative overindulgence, and the odd bit of slightly selfish acting (one imagines for the benefit of a certain prominent member of the Critics’ Circle who was in attendance on press night). One imagines that all the kinks will soon be ironed out, and that the show will hop, skip and jump from strength to strength and be crowned a great success in due course. It’s just a shame that you can’t get a ticket for love nor money. Oh well, check mate, I’m afraid.

    This production runs until 16 March 2013.
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