CHESS at the Union Theatre – the reviews are in!
Many, many thanks to Greg Leeds who brought many of these reviews to our attention.
CHESS at the Union Theatre has gone down exceedingly well with the critics who have mostly positive reviews of this latest incarnation of Benny, Björn and Sir Tim Rice’s 1985 musical.
It appears even more disappointing now that the show, which is performed in front of a maximum of about 50 people (such is the small scale of the venue), is only being staged from February 13 until March 16. Still, like many of the reviewers urge, I would say if you can get hold of a ticket, then do…
Below you’ll find a selection of reviews:
This difficult, brilliant work at its finest
My colleague William Hartston, who writes the Beachcomber column for the Daily Express and also knows a thing or two about CHESS, was the technical consultant on the original version of Tim Rice’s Eighties musical collaboration with Benny and Björn. He tells me he occasionally gets a small cheque from revivals around the world, but he shouldn’t hold his breath in this instance.
That’s no reflection on the quality of Christopher Howell and Steven Harris’s thrilling production. It’s just that this tiniest of fringe venues only seats 45 so the money won’t exactly be pouring in. The space in a south London railway arch specialises in reviving neglected works of musical theatre, and they don’t come more unfairly neglected than CHESS.
The West End production followed a hit concept album, on the model of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, and it ran for a respectable if not blockbusting three years.
But the Broadway version lasted eight weeks and the show is now rarely revived, with the result that you can know the brashy, ballsy score backwards but never have seen the work. One commercial disadvantage was its refusal to press the usual sentimental buttons.
An atmospheric, hard-nosed fictionalisation of the chess championships that pitted the Americans against the Soviet Union in the Cold War, it combines smart, sophisticated lyrics (rhyming “consul” with ” what his response’ll/ be” is one of my favourites) with a gritty, unsentimental realism about geopolitics that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Le Carré novel, where the grand masters are pawns in a far bigger chess game.
Far from conquering all, love barely gets a look-in amid the competing pressures of sporting ambition and superpower rivalry. Even the iconic duet I Know Him So Well features two women competing to fob the same man off on one another.
On big stages where the voices are all amplified, some of those subtleties tend to get lost. But this space is so intimate that everyone in the audience has a perfect view of the regular-sized chess board on which the championship takes place.
None of the cast needs a mic and every word of the sung-through book makes itself heard with perfect clarity. The Broadway version lasted eight weeks and the show is now rarely revived. From the opening murder in 1956 Budapest there is a real sense of danger – literally so if you’re sitting in the front row – and the moments of choreography are razor-sharp and witty.
Nadim Naaman and Sarah Galbraith are in stunning voice as the defecting Russian champion and his Hungarian-American lover. Gillian Kirkpatrick as the Soviet fixer makes gloriously mischievous love to her every twisting Russian vowel and consonant, but for me the most gripping performance comes from Tim Oxbrow as the US champ, none-too-loosely based on Bobby Fischer, who struts with a cocksure arrogance yet manages to convey a lifetime of damage in a heartfelt bratty yowl.
There have been many different versions of CHESS over the years. Sir Tim Rice has let it be known that this, first seen as an arena show at the Royal Albert Hall five years ago, is now the official English-language one. He should consider endorsing this production as definitive too, because it shows this difficult, brilliant work at its finest.
West End Frame
I completely fell in love with the show
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?
British Theatre Guide
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.
UK Theatre Network
I urge you to see this show
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 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 hostility 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!
CHESS seems to have too many variations for me to follow
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.
Blown away by such ensemble pieces as The Deal (No Deal)
CHESS, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderrson’s 1980s musical, is a story about the board game, love and the Cold War. Capturing ideological tensions through a world CHESS championship in 1979 between an American and Russian, it reveals how the Cold War also destroyed individuals’ lives by affecting personal relationships.
When the American (world champion at the start) loses to the Russian after his own successes and insecurities destroy him, the Russian promptly ‘steals’ the American’s female chief delegate and defects to the West. He then finds that he can only retain his crown by devoting himself entirely to the game, and disregarding everything around him including wife, lover and Soviet pressure.
Despite enjoying three years on the West End and a considerable cult following still, CHESS was never the most major of hits, its undoubted intelligence walking hand in hand with a slightly unwieldy plotline. Over the years it has undergone numerous incarnations, and the Union Theatre has now been granted special permission by lyricist Tim Rice to perform the story as it was presented in a concert performance at the Royal Albert Hall in 2008.
Rice clearly knew what he was doing. The Union Theatre has an excellent track record in delivering innovative and quality theatre, and a knack for playing its small, intimate venue to its advantage. On this occasion, it has created the most powerful of experiences as the audience sit inches from the performers around three sides of a chess square. From here they find themselves blown away by such ensemble pieces as The Deal (No Deal) and completely sucked into the emotions of more private numbers like Mountain Duet.
From among the strong cast the performances of Nadim Naaman as the Russian and Sarah Galbraith as (initially) the American’s second, Florence, stand out. Naaman’s pleasing voice complements an intelligent, thinking stage disposition, while Galbraith puts in a truly sensational vocal performance.
Although very nearly there, some tweaking is still probably required if CHESS is to grace a West End stage once more (and we hope that it does). The audience requires signposting through the plot, but the television commentaries that provide the explanations feel too deliberate, despite being delivered well by Natalie McQueen.
Similarly, to reduce the show’s length, the brutal act of eliminating some songs is preferable to cutting numbers such as Merano slightly short, which affects the lucidity in the pacing. None of these problems, however, will confront you at the Union Theatre where tickets are going fast, and you are strongly advised to ring immediately if you want the chance to experience this superb show at such a reasonable price.
What’s on Stage
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 Harrisat 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, 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.
Chess is an unworthy subject for a musical
An impressive revival of a long absent musical, but one which leaves you questioning why it was revived at all.
Don’t switch off yet; the plot behind CHESS – the musical is more engaging than might be originally presumed. Loosely based on the clash of the titans of chess, American Bobby Fischer and the Russian Boris Spassky, the creators of the musical sought to consider the Cold War through an alternative prism. Not only did they add song and dance to the game of chess, they also added liberal doses of sex, politics and violence. Getting the show off the ground – and attracting what might otherwise have been a sceptical audience – was made easier by the fact that the lyrics were composed by Tim Rice and the music was provided by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, formerly of ABBA.
Successful when it first launched in the UK in the late 1980s, CHESS has not had a major revival in the UK since the 1990s. The Union Theatre has decided that it is time to dust off the script and score. And, on the face of it, it’s hard to fault the quality of the Union’s cast and production. 16 cast members sing and dance their heart out – and they are all, with one or two notable exceptions, well trained and accomplished. The staging itself is visually satisfying, especially when one is aware that it was originally intended to be performed on a much larger, grander stage.
Revivals of Chess not only serve to remind us just how much global politics has changed in the intervening decades, but also how far the game of chess has fallen from the world stage. The clash between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky was truly a global event; it is difficult to imagine such a high-profile occasion occurring today. Yet, chess is a worthy subject for drama; the stakes are often high and much pressure is focused on the two players. Those who continue to recognise the game’s dramatic potential include participants in a modern variation on the ancient game – ‘chessboxing’, which involves alternating rounds of chess and boxing. And, according to informed sources, it remains true that the world of international chess is often stranger than fiction
The problem with Chess is not that chess is an unworthy subject for a musical. Musicals have been written about stranger subjects and achieved even greater commercial success. Step forward, for example, Cats. The issue instead is that, despite a handful of brilliant scenes, the overly dramatic plot overshadows the potential ‘natural’ drama. And, unfortunately, many of the songs rely upon terrible lyrics. The scene with the two tap-dancing civil servants is excellent but short, and only serves to show up the rest of the production for its lack of creativity.
One cannot help but feel that this revival of CHESS suffers from limited relevance for today’s audience. Chess the game holds much less of a place in our national consciousness. More critically, the musical itself has not stood the test of time. This is one for die-hard fans of the original, rather than a legion of new musical fans.
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, resonant 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.