Music: Benny Andersson and Bjӧrn Ulvaeus
Lyrics: Tim Rice and Bjӧrn Ulvaeus
Director: Nick Winston
Opening a series of Monday night summer concerts at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Chess: The Musical in Concert is an intensely fought match with Benny Andersson, Bjӧrn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice’s musical along with superb headliners Samantha Barks, Hadley Fraser, Joel Harper-Jackson and Frances Mayli McCann on one side and Nick Winston’s direction and choreography on the other. Across two hours of performance these titans contend, trying to upstage and outmanoeuvre each other – the result is an honourable draw.
The plot of Chess is faintly ludicrous; against a Cold War backdrop, American player Freddie and Russian champion Anatoly contend for the 1984 world chess championship. Beating his rival and stealing his girl Florence along the way, the questioning of Anatoly’s commitment to Russia encourages them to leave. When the rivals meet again months later, with Antaoly’s wife Svetlana in tow, another game gets underway.
As director and choreographer, Winston has thrown absolutely everything he can think of at this two-night performance. Essentially a concert in name only, the principals are supported not just by an all-singing-all-dancing ensemble but also by the London Musical Theatre Orchestra and the London Musical Theatre Chorus. It makes for a crowded stage but certainly provides vocal depth to the big numbers, particularly the rousing Anthem that ends Act One.
However, this is an all-but-staged performance; anyone expecting a line of microphones may be surprised to find an almost fully acted piece with costume changes, entrance and exit cues, dance interpretation and animated video design. Winston tries to help the audience understand the plot and emotional shifts but in using all of these toys at once, it takes more away from the show than it offers.
The choreography is often an unnecessary distraction from the lyrics, draining tension from the chess matches for which Andersson and Ulvaeus have written lovely music that we could just listen to, while the projection often spells out the psychology and poignancy of the solos – something the performers do perfectly well on their own. Added to that Ben Cracknell’s excitable lighting design beaming in multiple directions and this show feels overproduced; you might even long for the simplicity of that line of microphones and this collection of extraordinary voices.
In the programme notes, Rice urges the audience to listen to the lyrics and while it is a struggle to make them out initially, Barks is remarkable as Florence. So at home in the Theatre Royal Drury Lane after almost a year of performing in Frozen, Barks’ rock vocal is delightful and with perfect diction that soars above the music, conveying her character’s complex interior life. Fraser is just as good as the selfish Anatoly, putting work before everything else but delivering charisma with his big solo numbers.
Harper-Jackson gives a cruel and petulant Freddie with a hint of backstory that doesn’t require the digital translation that Winston thinks necessary, while Mayli McCann, fresh from her triumph in the Bonnie & Clyde musical, makes a great deal out of very little with Svetlana’s short appearances on stage. There is already a lot going on in Chess with its romantic, political and nationalistic themes as well as plenty of plot leaps that make motivation a little hazy, so forget all those empty tricks, just let the wonderful London Musical Theatre Orchestra play the score and the performers sing it, they really don’t need any help with that.
Runs until 2 August 2022