Theatre Review: Chess - Union Theatre, London ✭✭✭✭

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.