When I heard that Chess was making its way to the West End for the first time in over 30 years, I knew I had to be part of this special production. But the English National Opera is notorious for high price tickets (I mean, there are a lot of people to pay at the London Coliseum so it makes sense but I’m queen of the cheap seats usual). Thanks to Today Tix I was able to get a ticket in the dress circle for just £25, making it that little bit more affordable.
Chess is the fourth musical production in collaboration with the ENO at the London Coliseum, and stars West End legend Michael Ball (Les Mis, Hairspray) alongside Cassidy Janson (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical), Alexandra Burke (The Bodyguard) and Tim Howar (Mike & The Mechanics, Rock of Ages). Written in 1984 by ABBA songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and Tim Rice, plenty of hit singles have come out of the original recording including I Know Him So Well, Anthem and One Night In Bangkok.
Chess is a love story, set against the background of the Cold War, with the world chess championship taking the forefront. America versus Russia in politics and in the game. Whilst competing for the championship, both Anatoly (Ball) and Freddie Trumper (Howar) find themselves falling for Florence (Janson), a Hungarian refugee. But Anatoly is already married to Svetlana (Burke), and must make the choice between his wife and son, or his lover.
Honestly, I didn’t rate this production. Whilst I’m aware of the music, this particular version of the score was not my favourite. Whilst the ENO created the most beautiful music, I found it was too much for the actors. Alexandra Burke’s voice didn’t fill the London Coliseum, and was very much overpowered by the strong orchestra. Without prior knowledge to the plot, I think the score would have been very difficult to follow, and if I never have to watch a Chess game performed in front of me on stage it will still be too soon. Chess definitely isn’t a spectator sport!
What I don’t understand is why Anatoly was the hero. Both women adored him, but he cheated on his wife and left his son without warning. A Russian ran off to have an affair with his manager in London for a year, and his wife still took him back. It just didn’t make sense. Honestly, I don’t think the score and plot have ever really settled and it’s become very dated. For some productions, 30 years is not a long time and revivals work brilliantly, but this was written surrounding a very unstable time for millions of people and it just seems to have lost its meaning a little (although in some respects, tensions between America and the rest of the world are so high that maybe it is the right time to revive this production).
I was really disappointed in the choreography, but not because of the movement itself. The choreography was actually pretty special, but the excution was awful. The technique was not there, and many moments were out of time and it seemed under-rehearsed. In fact, the whole production felt like it had been thrown together last minute. Even the costume seemed like they’d been pulled out of storage and thrown on without a second thought. I honestly would’ve rather watched the orchestra play the score and treated it more like a concert than a musical. The same cast could’ve been in it, and in costume, but maybe get rid of the set.
The set was fantastic, but it was more of a hindrance than an asset the the production. Having a chess board was obviously inspired, but what I hated was the video. The recording was sloppy, and I found myself watching that more than what was on stage. And when you’re in the dress circle, some of the best seats in the house, it’s not good for your production for the audience’s eye to wander. I thought the lighting was another really clever aspect, but it was too bright and dazzled the audience on more occasion than once.
Main Cast: 6/10
Lighting Design: 5/10
Sound Design: 4/10
Set Design: 6/10
Costume Design: 4/10
Audience Engagement: 5/10
The London Coliseum is a beautiful theatre, and was home to Bat Out Of Hell last summer before its move to the Dominion Theatre last month. The leg room was sufficient for most although the seating felt miles away from the stage. Like I’ve mentioned, I was towards the back of the dress circle which is usually a pretty decent seat, and whilst I can’t fault the view, I was painfully far away from the stage. Looking down to the stalls, front row would’ve been around sixth row in an ordinary theatre. I’m used to being near the back, but it didn’t feel like I was involved. I wasn’t immersed in the show the way I feel I ought to have been.
It’s also worth pointing out that until last week, the London Coliseum banned food and drink coming in for musicals and concerts. This has since been called discriminatory and this ruling now applies to every production at the venue, but I do think they need to find a way to improve this ban. I had a full bottle of water, which I was asked to empty then refill inside. I had to pour this out on the street, rather than into a plant or giving to someone on the street who might’ve been in need. I really hope any sealed bags of sweets confiscated don’t just go in the bin as there are so many people sleeping rough around the theatre who would definitely appreciate them.
Depending on what the ENO collaboration is next Spring, I would consider revisiting, but it would have to be a show that I was eager to see. It was a very slapdash production, which is a real shame because I think they could’ve done a lot more with it. Michael Ball and Cassidy Janson were faultless, although I thought Alexandra Burke was a little bit of a strange choice. The ensemble’s harmonies made it difficult to understand the wording in the songs, and when a musical is sung-through like this, it is vital that the audience can undestand everything. Chess just didn’t do it for me this time, and I think it’s put me off the production for life.
Chess is running at the London Coliseum until 2nd June.