Tim Rice, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus' musical Chess was originally developed as a 1984 album which spawned several chart hits, including the number one single I Know Him So Well. It's journey to the stage was the start of a turbulent journey where the musical was deconstructed, rewritten, hacked apart and re-staged in various forms by a variety of directors. So much so that no two version of Chess have ever been the same. In 2008 Tim Rice presented a concert version at the Royal Albert Hall in an effort to present a version close to definitive.
The musical portrays the story of chess grand-masters Freddie Trumper and Anatoly Sergievsky, representing the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in the World Chess Championship, and the woman who comes between them, Florence Vassy, who works with the American but soon falls for the Russian player. The Cold War political undertones inform the various machinations of the plot but ultimately it is a story of doomed love.
Kudos must be given to the Royal Conservatoire for attempting this most demanding show but, sadly, for the most part it is a misdirected effort laden with flaws and throughout there are excesses worthy of a Tom O'Horgan production.
Chess is oft cited as having a complex plot but this is not necessarily so, especially if the direction is precise and focused. But here a lack of clarity and a penchant for excessive staging muddies the storytelling despite the apparent need to spoon-feed the audience information at times, as when screens explain the lyrics 'S.R.O.' and Molokov's manila folder emblazoned with 'Classified' - despite the fact that the word should be in Russian. In comparison, other design elements are far too busy to be successful, as in the tops worn by the Merchandisers.
It's a rather chaotic production that lacks cohesion and Andrew Panton's direction is woefully misguided and it's clear he does not understand the musical and has not listened to Rice's lyrics, which are integral to the storytelling. Panton's staging doesn't appear to join the dots and there are some very questionable decisions which fail to serve the plot. Act II is especially chaotic and incoherent and there is also an obsession with onstage drinking and an excessive use of fog, which during I Know Him So Well threatened to engulf the audience.
The choreography by Darragh O'Leary is serviceable, as is most of the musical staging but there are many missed opportunities, including a rather unremarkable One Night In Bangkok and a rather staid Merchandisers. His most successful work is in the second chess game where the conflict between Freddie and Anatoly is truly put to the fore.
Kenneth MacLeod's design is clumsily dwarfed by a central platform that causes some serious stall sight-line issues throughout the show. Beyond that it is rather run-of-the-mill and uninspired and the upstage platform is under-utilised, though the video screen design is a welcome variation, even if the graphics themselves are questionable, often reminding one of an American action movie title design. The costumes include some odd choices and appear as a random assemblage of 1980s stereotypical images; dressing Freddie as Corey Haim in The Lost Boys in Act I and a Miami Vice wannabe in Act II, adorning the Russians in huge over-the-top bear-skin hats, huge-shouldered security figures (and I mean huge), adorning the ensemble of One Night In Bangkok as if they have arrived from Liberace's gym - replete with gold tank tops and shorts. Indeed the costumes in such numbers are rather unvaried causing a massive swathe of singular colour to overpower the staging. Among the most unusual costuming choices are the ensemble costumes, presumably meant to represent chess pieces, during the chess games where cumbersome head gear is sported, recalling the helmet of TV's Knightmare.
The excessive lighting design by Grant Anderson is also sometimes a hindrance to the audience's view, often blinding them, and it is often overpowering, though there are also successful moments and ideas as in The Deal.
This presentation is based on the London version, with some of the additions and revisions of the Royal Albert Hall concert and whilst the musical direction is fine, other musical edits (including removing some of the backing vocals and reply lines in songs) are undertaken and these are rather hit and miss serving no real purpose with many being clumsy and where sung lines are spoken, devoid of underscore, these are often clunky. That said, it's always a joy to hear Chess with a full sized orchestra (not "band" as shamefully described in the programme) including a full string section.
It is unfortunate that there are no clear character arcs in this production since any established scenic points are all but ignored by the director and his choices. But otherwise the cast rise above the limitations imposed upon them:
The Arbiter of Emma Torrens is terribly under-used and comes across as a visual merging of Sam Bailey and Ana Matronic. Though she is often rooted to one spot throughout the show her dynamic vocals punctuate the production with massive effect.
Jamie Pritchard as Anatoly is a charismatic, attractive figure who has an interesting, if unusual, vocal technique and he serves the role as best as is possible given the erratic direction and, for the most part, creates a sympathetic character that appeals to the audience.
Freddie is portrayed as an erratic, alcohol-swigging drug addict - at least in Act I, since these vices miraculously disappear in Act II. This imposed addictive factor serves only to negate the principle that Freddie is an unpleasant character because of his intense focus, to the detriment of all else - including his relationship with Florence - on the game of chess and his family history as revealed in Pity The Child. Here his addictions are the issue rendering his actions in the second act as without reason. Barney Wilkinson's voice is suited to the rock role and he is certainly a watchable Freddie.
Walter and Molokov are rather unusual portrayals, with Walter, here played by Jacob Stein, especially being a rather unpleasant stereotype, complete with cowboy hat and cigar, whose singing part has been unwisely all but cut. Shane Convery's Molokov is likewise stunted by directorial choices, though he, at least, has more to do.
Svetlana is given little to do, aside from occasionally verging on histrionics, and is dressed rather extravagantly for a Russian woman from Soviet-era Russia, even if that woman is the wife of the Russian chess champion. In the role, Hayley VerValin does her best with the little material she is given. It is also unfortunate that her one solo, Someone Else's Story, employ the original Broadway lyrics where the song was written for Florence, rather than the 1990 Australian rewrite where the song was assigned to Svetlana with suitable corrections, as this would make more dramatic sense for her character.
Florence has the most impressive vocals of the production (Nobody's Side is the highlight of the show) though her character is again marred by the direction; having her get drunk during Mountain Duet, a scene where she is supposed to fall for the Russian, negates the sober choice she is meant to be making. That said, the fact that Florence and Anatoly have no physical contact during the number makes the scene, and Freddie's response to it, ultimately futile. But Daisy Ann Fletcher is certainly something of a powerhouse in the largest role in the show.
The ensemble do well with what they are given though this often constitutes some of the most cartoon-like, comical stereotyping I've ever seen which only belittles the cast and the material they perform. The ensemble vocals during Act II fall apart somewhat with Bangkok often sounding akin to a cacophony but they are especially successful when they are portraying the Reporters, handling some of the most demanding musical material very well.
Chess is a most demanding show and it is unfortunate that the cast are let down by an unremarkable creative team who have created a production that is all too clumsy and clunky and not at all as elegant as the game of chess, and the musical of the same name, should be.
An edited version of this review was later published on Backstage Pass and can be read here: http://sharmanprince.blogspot.co.uk/2017/03/chess-rcs-edited-review-for-backstage.html