If a musical about chess sounds about as enthralling as a wet sock, then you’re a millennial: someone who isn’t old enough to remember the seismic effect this show had when it first opened in the mid-Eighties.
Created by ABBA, Tim Rice and writer Richard Nelson, Chess is a pop-opera classic which stormed the West End when it opened over 30 years ago. It bizarrely hasn’t been back since it opened, only a few years after ABBA disbanded.
Leap forward 32 years and it’s like Chess lead creative Tim Rice could smell something in the air. ABBA are back, reforming and recording new music, a fact that clashes with the return of their bombastic, quite outdated musical directed by Laurence Connor.
Chess stars Michael Ball as Anatoly Sergievsky, Alexandra Burke as Anatoly’s estranged wife Svetlana, and Cassidy Janson as Florence who Anatoly, a professional chess player, falls in love with.
Russian star Anatoly spends much of the play literally taking on his US arch-rival Freddie Trumper at chess, played with panache by Tim Howar.
But the love-torn plotline has symbolic themes about the Cold War, and how personal battles were contested as much as political ones as giant weights from both sides of the War meet over a table to play a game of chess.
The action is backed spectacularly by the English National Opera – thankfully visible on stage and not in the pit – who beautifully serenade the two men as they meet to play chess, and become embroiled all too closely in each others’ lives.
Famous lighting designer Patrick Woodruffe has pulled off a stunner in lighting Matthew Kinley’s towering set, which has the playful and ambitious feel of a theme park ride and gives the production energy and modern visual flair.
Although, its stonking dealings with power using allegory felt tired and static as the sight of two men towering over a chess board is magnified on screens, alongside videos from the Cuban Missile Crisis and other moments of political tension.
Chess also feels wearily gendered as their other halves are written thinly, especially Burke’s Svetlana.
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Michael Ball gets all the standing ovations you’d expect from his audience of obsessive fans, however, he struggles on a couple of his big belting notes. Standing stage centre and singing on a raised platform, he also looks like something out of the Eightes.
There are also problematic scenes set in Bangkok and Merano which rely on stereotypes for representation, a scene featuring ladyboys as the sole representation of Bangkok felt particularly crass and outdated.
And Anatoly’s relationship with the much younger Florence at times feels absolutely creepy.
Nevertheless, the music soars and the staging is stimulating, even if the runtime drags, as the show tries clumsily to tackle Cold War politics as it rifles through its political agenda.
Granted, the famous “I Knew Him So Well” duetted by Burke and Janson is a spine-tingling delight, but this one’s really best saved for those with the benefit of nostalgia, who saw it the first time around and will go for the sparkly songs and, well, Michael Ball.