Nobody’s on nobody’s side – an all-star cast can’t save this game of Chess from itself, for me at least
“From square one I’ll be watching all sixty-four”
It’s taken over 30 years for Chess to return to the West End (though it was seen at the Union in 2013) and though it has a huge amount of resource thrown at it in Laurence Connor’s production for English National Opera, it doesn’t necessarily feel worth the wait. An 80’s mega-musical through and through with an intermittently cracking score from ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, Richard Nelson’s book hasn’t aged particularly well and bears the hallmarks of the substantial tinkering it has had at every opportunity.
It’s not too hard to see why it has needed the tinkering. The mix of Cold War politics told through the prism of rival US and Soviet chess Grandmasters, love triangles and power ballads is a tricky one to get right and part of the problem seems to be just how seriously to take it all. On the one hand, the chess matches are backgrounded with montages of the real-life tensions of the 80s; on the other, scenes that take us through the various locations of the tournaments are a cringeworthy riot of cultural stereotyping that revel in their utter kitsch.
The result is an unbalanced production which doesn’t quite convince. A deliberately naff 80s design aesthetic comes up hard against state-of-the-art live video and projection work on two giant screens either side of the stage. Anders Eljas’ arrangements, fleshed out by the ENO’s hefty chorus and orchestra, are nixed by a punishing sound balance which obscures much of Tim Rice’s lyrical content. The saving grace comes with a suite of strong performances who nail the high points of that score.
Michael Ball soars effortlessly through ‘Anthem’ as the stern Russian Anatoly, a direct contrast to the wilder American Freddie, a raucous Tim Howar who brings down the house with ‘Pity The Child’. The marvellous Cassidy Janson dispatches Florence, sometime lover to both, with her customary élan, especially on a glorious ‘Nobody’s Side’. And Alexandra Burke does well with the underwritten part of Svetlana, successfully transitioning (for the most part) from her pop inclinations to a legit straight MT interpretation of the material. Strong work too comes from Phillip Browne and Cedric Neal.
Ultimately, this feels like a production that isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. If you love Chess, then you could well love this. If not, then it will reconfirm all your worst fears about this kind of musical. And if you’re in the middle, then who knows. I suspect I’ll happily wait another 30 years for it to come back.