Theatre Review: Chess - Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow ✭✭

Review by Sharman Prince

Originally developed as a 1984 album Tim Rice, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus' musical Chess spawned several chart hits, including the number one single I Know Him So Well. It was later deconstructed, rewritten, hacked apart and re-staged in various forms by a variety of directors to the point 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.

Chess is oft cited as having a complex plot but this is not 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. It's a rather chaotic production that lacks cohesion and Andrew Panton's direction is woefully misguided and it's apparent 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 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 threatened to engulf the audience during I Know Him So Well.

The choreography by Darragh O'Leary is serviceable  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 in dynamic fashion.

Kenneth MacLeod's design is clumsily dwarfed by a central platform that causes some serious stall sight-line issues but is otherwise rather run-of-the-mill and uninspired with the upstage platform under-used, though the video screen design is a welcome variation, even if the graphics themselves are questionable. The costumes include some odd choices and appear as a random assemblage of 1980s stereotypical images; Corey Haim in The Lost Boys; Miami Vice; huge over-the-top bear-skin hats for the Russians; even adorning the ensemble of One Night In Bangkok as if they were in
Liberace's gym - replete with gold tank tops and shorts. Indeed the costumes are rather unvaried in scenes causing a massive swathe of singular colour to overpower the stage. Among the most unusual costume choices are for the ensemble, presumably here meant to represent chess pieces, during the chess games where cumbersome head gear is sported, recalling the helmet of TV's Knightmare.
The unrestrained lighting design by Grant Anderson is often also a hindrance to the audience's view, often blinding them, and it is regularly overpowering, though there are also successful moments and ideas as in The Deal.

This presentation is based on the London version, using some of the more recent additions and revisions and whilst the musical direction is fine, other musical edits are undertaken and these are rather hit and miss serving no real purpose with many being cloddish, and where sung lines are spoken, devoid of underscore, these are often awkward. That said, it's always a joy to hear Chess with a full sized orchestra - including a full string section.

It is unfortunate that there are no believable character arcs in this production based on directorial choices but the cast rise above the limitations imposed upon them:

The Arbiter of Emma Torrens is terribly under-used and appears 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 well and, for the most part, creates a sympathetic character that appeals to the audience.

Freddie is portrayed as an erratic drug addict - at least in Act I, since this vice disappears 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, on the game of chess and his childhood as revealed in Pity The Child. Here his addiction is 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, 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 has little to do, aside from verging on histrionics, and is dressed rather extravagantly for a Russian woman from Soviet-era Russia, even the wife of the Russian chess champion. In the role, Hayley VerValin does her best with the little material she is given but it is unfortunate her solo,
Someone Else's Story, does not employ the appropriate 1990 Australian rewrite lyrics which make more dramatic sense for her character.

Florence has the most successful vocals of the production (Nobody's Side is the highlight of the show) though her character is again marred by direction; having her 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 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.

Kudos must be given to the Royal Conservatoire for attempting this demanding show but, sadly, for the most part it is a misdirected effort laden with flaws filled with excesses worthy of a Tom O'Horgan production 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.