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Chess The Musical In Concert (Theatre Royal, Drury Lane)

(seen at the performance on 1st August 2022).

As the monkey opens every opinion piece about this show: to paraphrase Tim Rice’s lyrics, ‘each revival of “Chess” means there is one less staging left to be played.’ A programme note has director Nick Winston explaining how he built on his January 2020 Japanese production.

Winston solves one chess problem straight off. By cutting the two (mostly unfunny and lengthy) “comedy” numbers from the show, he can get straight to the real heart of the show – a political love story as cold as a book of chess strategy.

It isn’t the only change. The epilogue “The Story Of Chess” here becomes the opening number, a slightly odd choice. The ending is also a little muddy. Even the monkey, who saw the original production just after its press night, found it confusing.

To get the final mild negatives out of the way, Winston’s choreography varies wildly in quality from inspired spectators craning to see the board during the game, to just-about-contextually acceptable Bangkok body exploitation through to inexplicable but probably symbolic hand waving whenever chess itself was mentioned.

Mildly problematic too is the use of a big screen with animations. Duncan McLean produces some wonderful images, but not really enough of them at crucial points in the show, perhaps. A lost opportunity, possibly due to budget constraints. 

For the rest, this is in the higher category of musicals staged as concerts. A set of broad stairs either side of the excellent London Musical Theatre Orchestra under Freddie Tapner, with the London Musical Theatre Chorus choir behind them provide everything needed to support 6 principals and 12 dancers. Ben Cracknell’s lighting design is outstanding, drawing the audience in with several auditorium filling effects.

On stage, every main character is pitched a huge Andersson / Ulvaeus / Rice number and - without fail or, seemingly, breaking sweat, connects and smashes them out of the park.

Samantha Barks is not only resident Queen at Drury Lane during the week but has performed as Florence in this director’s Japanese production. Familiar with the character and venue her withering looks at male follies, internal confusion and delivery of bleakly conclusive “Nobody’s Side” land precisely on every seat in the house.

Having scored her own triumph with “Bonnie and Clyde The Concert” on this very stage back in February 2022, Frances Mayli McCann as Svetlana pairs with Barks to claim “I Know Him So Well” for a new generation. One recording the monkey truly hopes has been made.

Alone, Mayli McCann shatters the soul with a “Someone Else’s Story” rendering the audience pin-drop silent.

Back in the USA, Joel Harper-Jackson (Freddie Trumper) clearly knows what it is to be a neglected little boy making the most of his talent without support. “Pity The Child” has every muscle-memory of how an angry, frightened pre-teen holds himself as the song begins. Opening out and growing up (strong visual animations complement the performance) in the space of a few verses, it is probably the definitive performance of the role.

Opponent Anatoly has Hadley Fraser perhaps using his experience in “The Machine” (as a friend of the monkey’s speculated) to produce an immaculate Russian accent and convincingly fatalistic attitude. “Anthem” is, like “Bring Him Home” one of those male musical theatre numbers so overdone the monkey cringes at the first bars. That Fraser closes act one with it sounding like a new song embracing the theatre and uniting the world is beyond impressive. Oh, and his own duets with Ms Barks give both equal support to create romantic tension superbly.

As Anatoly’s minder, shady Molokov allows Craige Els some rather good moments. “The Soviet Machine” sees a well-conceived Russian dance given a chilling end. 

Just possibly the director himself gets a quick cameo too, as a player who does nothing but concentrate on the game, but the monkey stands to be corrected.

Mention too for Ako Mitchell, an Arbiter who knows the score and guides the show with a strong opening number vocal and fun rendition of his character’s solo number, accompanied by the chorus.

This talented bunch get the “Embassy Lament” as their own, amusing even if reflecting the sexism of the time with male clerks and female assistants catching (with one exception) the screwed-up papers the men generate. 

It is clear from the small details – the clink of a glass, Samantha Barks dancing a little in the wings after exiting and numerous winks and nods as the show continued that this is very much an ensemble at ease. That they have been granted three rather than the original single concert performance over these two days in early August is as good a move as a Queen’s Gambit.

“Chess” will probably always remain a mostly strong score with a murky book attached. This version points the way to perhaps an even stronger re-written revival in the future. Should that happen, we can only hope this cast is available to perform it.

4 stars.


Photo Credit: Mark Senior, used by kind permission.

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