The original London production of Chess starring Elaine Page, Murray Head and Tommy Korberg ran for three years from 1986 at the Prince Edward Theatre. But, sadly, as a teenager living in South Africa, the nearest I came to seeing it then was listening to the original cast recording. Which I did. A lot.
So I was both thrilled to have the opportunity to see the ENO’s revival of this blockbuster musical and intrigued to see how the show had stood the test of time. Pretty well, as it turns out – there are uncanny parallels between the show’s Cold War setting and current fragile relations between Trump and Putin. The love triangle storyline, too, still packs a powerful emotional punch.
Cold War echoes
As the producers Michael Linnet and Michael Grade remark in the introduction to the musical’s programme: “Whilst the pre-glasnost Cold War might not have seem relevant when we all committed, we knew that the intimate stories at the show’s heart… would surely delight audiences again in London. Little did we know that relations between Russia and the West would turn so cold ahead of our opening…”
For sheer spectacle, the set and staging are hard to beat. Chessboard squares double up as LED screens that show a series of different locations (a plane landing at Bolzano airport, the seedier side of Bangkok), montages of the Cold War and close-ups of the performers.
Which brings me to the singing. Tim Howar shines in the role of American Grandmaster Freddie Trumper; his voice has a brilliant 1980s rock-star quality, while Michael Ball as his opponent Anatoly Sergievsly gives a masterclass in musical theatre – his performance of Anthem is spine tingling.
Act II includes a couple of show-stopping songs that had chart success in the 1980s. One Night In Bangkok sung by Howar, is even more powerful with the ENO orchestra’s backing and the emotional duet I Know Him So Well is beautifully performed by Cassidy Janson and Alexandra Burke playing Florence Vassy and Svetlana Sergievsky.
The ENO’s sixty-strong Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by John Rigby, deserve a special mention. The musicians effortlessly shift gears through so many musical genres, from opera and jazz, to rock and rap, and the Chorus and ensemble skilfully navigate the complicated dance moves.
Walking out of the Coliseum after such a spectacular production, I’m not ashamed to admit that I shed a tear. The 30-year wait to see Chess live was definitely worth it.
On until June 2nd 2018. Book here.