I have a long and geeky history with Chess. Not the game, I’m afraid – I never really learned to play, though we always had a chessboard at home. I have a long and geeky history with the musical, in part because I also have a long and geeky history with ABBA. My iPod holds many secrets, some of which are about to be revealed.
I bought the concept album on cassette when it came out – 26 years ago, which makes me feel really, really old. It was a double album, and I didn’t get all that much pocket money, so buying it was a significant investment. I wore out one tape and bought another. When it came out a few years later, I bought the Broadway cast album, also on cassette, and was very surprised to hear how different it was to the concept recording. At around the same time, my mother took me to see the London production. It wasn’t the first West End musical I’d seen, but I’d never seen anything quite so spectacular. “Chess”, in London, was something to look at. There was a huge chessboard that lit up, banked, tilted and revolved, there were 128 video screens, there was a rock band and a large string section in the pit, there were a lot of great songs and some terrific singers (including, when I saw it, Anthony Stewart Head), there was an opening ballet with 32 actors dressed as chess pieces… and there was a convoluted and slightly baffling plot about marital infidelity and the cold war. I loved it. For all its faults – and it certainly had faults – it wasn’t quite like anything else I’d ever experienced.
I kept on listening to the music. When I got a CD player, I replaced my knackered cassettes with CDs. I saw the first UK tour an embarrassing number of times, in more than one venue (Liverpool, Bradford and multiple times in Manchester). I moved to London to go to university, and my debit card began an unhealthy and long-standing relationship with Dress Circle. I bought the Broadway script – and God, it’s dreadful – and on my first trip to New York I found the Broadway production’s souvenir brochure in one of the theatre gift shops off Times Square, and bought it for rather more than I could afford. When the Swedish concert recording appeared, I snapped it up. Over the years, it’s been followed by the Danish cast recording, the Swedish stage cast recording – yes, in Swedish, which I do not speak – and DVD, and the Royal Albert Hall concert recording, on which Josh Groban exhibits the charisma of wet Wonder Bread, Adam Pascal hits many, many bum notes, and Idina Menzel elects to play Florence as a Fraggle marooned in the Roosevelt Field Mall without a credit card. My enthusiasm for this music, yes, even survived Ms. Mendel’s hideous, grandstanding rendition of “Nobody’s Side” (I won’t include a link, out of respect for my readers’ eardrums). So yes, I’m a “Chess” geek, and I feed my geek streak regularly. Four of the recordings are on my iPod… along with the entire recorded output of ABBA, but that’s another post. Maybe.
The thing is, with “Chess”, there’s a lot to feed a latent geek streak. It’s one of those shows that has never quite worked, and – like “Candide” or “Merrily We Roll Along” – there are so many different versions out there that it’s difficult to keep track. The London and Broadway versions were wildly different, the UK tour was significantly different from the London version, the Australian version is different again, the Swedish version involved yet another major overhaul (including a fair amount of new music, and the relegation of “One Night in Bangkok” to background music in a bar scene), and the published London script includes a large appendix of cut material and an author’s note from lyricist Tim Rice that allows people doing that version of the show considerable latitude in putting together their own version of the show (though that latitude stops short of allowing the inclusion of material from the Broadway version). You could, probably, spin a doctoral thesis out of tracking the various different versions of this script and score that have received major professional productions around the world. The plot never quite hangs together, but the music keeps people coming back, me included.
And this week, I saw yet another version. There’s a new UK tour doing the rounds, directed – like the production of “Spend Spend Spend” I saw last week – by the reptilian-but-talented Craig Revel Horwood. And, yes, while it mostly broadly follows the London version, it’s yet another revision, because apparently there just aren’t quite enough versions of “Chess” out there in the ether already.
It’s an intelligent enough revision, in fact, although the Swedish version, probably, comes closest to advancing a coherent plot. This new production plays up the love triangle at the expense of the cold-war politics, which means that we lose, for example, the lengthy sung scene between Florence and political manipulator Walter near the end of the show. We also lose the scene-setting “Merano”, and it’s not particularly missed – it’s a fun chorus, but even without it the show takes a long time to get going. Otherwise, this is the London version, explicitly presented as a period piece (set in 1979-1980), with nips, tucks and the addition of “Someone Else’s Story” as an Act Two ballad for Svetlana, the Russian wife. Even with the nips and tucks (which also, unfortunately, include half of the “You and I” reprise that marks the end of the love story at the heart of the show), the show runs two hours and fifty minutes, and the first half of the first act is very slow-moving.
Once the show gets going, what we basically get is a concert with a plot. This is yet another actor-musician production – that is, the cast double as the orchestra (there are two keyboard players and a drummer offstage). It is, I think, much the largest of the recent-ish spate of such productions – they usually originate in tiny theatres rather than major touring venues, and so employ ensembles of only a dozen or so performers, whereas there are 27 actors onstage here – but the use of actor-musicians nevertheless imposes limitations, not least in terms of the sets and choreography. Because there are so many musical instruments, some of them quite large, on the stage, it isn’t really possible to bring on large pieces of scenery; accordingly, the back wall of Christopher Woods’ set is formed of a wall of LCD screens that can split open like sliding doors to allow actors to enter. The screens show news footage, graphics, and scene-setting backdrops, and the video design – by Jack James – is terrific. This wall of scenes is surrounded by a structure made up of off-white squares, rather like chessboard squares – a sterile, clinical box that can be lit in an enormous variety of colours (the spectacular lighting is by Ben Cracknell). There’s a raised, raked playing area in the centre of the stage that can be underlit to suggest the squares on a chessboard or a mountainside; the chorus, and their musical instruments, are lined up in two rows on each side of the stage, and the only other scenic elements are stools, a table and a couple of perspex blocks. And the costumes. Oh my God, the costumes. Mr. Woods has elected to dress the chorus, though not the principals, quite literally as chess pieces. The London production did something similar in the opening ballet sequence, but the London production had a much bigger budget, used the literal chess-piece costumes for just one scene, and didn’t use chess-piece costumes that looked like they came from the S&M section at a pound shop. The actors playing the knights fare the worst – they’re doomed to spend the entire show wearing hats with perspex horse heads perched on top, and with fake horsehair tails coming out of the back of their trousers, while simultaneously singing, dancing and playing a variety of musical instruments.
And then there are the limitations that are already inherent in the actor-musician format. Bluntly, these are actors, not musicians. In the programme, the director makes a point of saying that he looked for actors who could play their instruments at Grade 8 level or above. That’s a very high level of musicianship for, say, secondary school, but it doesn’t approach what professional pit musicians can do. And, oddly, the size of the show and the scale of the orchestration – this is fairly close to the full orchestration, and of a score in which the symphonic elements have always been at least as important as the rock band that plays alongside the strings and woodwinds – work against the cast. Horwood’s production of “Spend Spend Spend”, which I saw the other week, and which also uses actor-musicians – sounds good, and the music, probably, is no less difficult than the score of “Chess”. But “Spend Spend Spend” is a small, gritty folk opera rather than a big, glitzy symphonic rock musical, and even in the original production (which did use a pit band) it was supposed to sound a little ragged around the edges. The company of “Chess” work very hard, play the entire score from memory, and play while singing, dancing, and at one point while writhing around on the floor on their backs. But they’re dispersed all over a large stage rather than sitting together in a pit, they’re not professional musicians, and they just can’t deliver the score as smoothly or as tightly as a professional pit band would. The playing is never exactly sloppy, but in the most rhythmically complex parts of the score – the “Chess” instrumental, the Golden Bangkok ballet, the Endgame sequence – the limitations of the actor-musicians onstage are very evident.
All of which makes it sound as if the production is a dead loss. It’s not. Despite the costumes, it’s very striking to look at, and when the principals take centre stage and let rip in their big numbers, it’s often thrilling. The leads are young, sexy and immensely talented, and they do full justice to the impressive series of songs that, let’s face it, are the reason why most of the audience are there. Daniel Koek’s Anatoly delivers the best rendition of “Anthem” I’ve ever heard in a theatre; Tommy Korberg owns the song, but he comes very close. Shona White’s sardonic, ball-breaking Florence knocks “Nobody’s Side” out of the park, then melts beautifully in the Mountain Duet and “Heaven Help My Heart”. David Erik’s Arbiter has a very silly costume (a long leather coat and no shirt – because, obviously, international chess tournaments are often refereed by a man who looks like a washed-up 70s Eastern Bloc rock god), but also sings like a dream and can dance and play the trumpet at the same time. Poppy Tierney’s Svetlana has very little to do, but does it very well; her “Someone Else’s Story” is lovely, and she and Ms. White are impressively fiery in “Endgame”. Steve Varnom has great fun with “The Soviet Machine”. And James Fox’s Freddie is definitive. He finds the dry humour in “One Night in Bangkok” (it completely eluded Adam Pascal in the Albert Hall concert), he hits *all* of his top notes accurately and without yelping, and he even manages to make “Pity the Child” into a moving soliloquy rather than a petulant rant. He’s spectacular.
So this production doesn’t entirely work – but then, no production of “Chess”, I think, has ever entirely worked. Despite the obvious restrictions of the actor-musician gimmick format, and the cheesy chorus costumes, Craig Revel Horwood deserves a lot of credit for delivering a production of a problematic show that carries itself off with absolute conviction. There’s nothing tentative about this production; even the wrong-headed choices are made confidently, and the leads, all of them, are spectacularly good. And for better or for worse, you’ll never see another production of “Chess” quite like it.