The Winner Takes It All

By Richard Barber

Chess has had what you might call a chequered career. first seen in London in 1986, and flopping on Broadway, it is now back in town, tweaked and tightened, some 32 years later at Frank Matcham's magnificent Coliseum Theatre, an apposite setting for this stately, semi-staged production.

From where I sat at the front of the dress circle, though, it didn’t look semi-staged at all. Matthew Kinley's simply striking design scatters both stage and side screens with neon-lit chess squares. and very effective they are, too. There’s an ensemble cast of 20-plus, an Eno chorus of a further 20 and a well-stocked resident orchestra on a raised platform at the back of the stage that, under John Rigby's assured baton, does full justice to Benny and Björn’s (the boys from Abba) lush score, even if the sound system does sometimes swamp Tim Rice's clever lyrics.

The story is simple enough. an American grandmaster, Freddie Trumper, is pitted against his Russian counterpart, Anatoly Sergievsky, the latter doubly humiliating the former by both trouncing him at the chess table and taking off with his wife. Canadian-born Tim Howard captures well the American in-your-face chippiness and handles his big solo number Pity the child superbly, although elsewhere sometimes crosses the line between singing and shouting. Cassidy Janson, so good recently as Carole King in the musical Beautiful, sings as well as she acts and brings real pathos to her final duet with Anatoly, you and i.

Alexandra Burke as Svetlana, the wife left behind in Russia, is under-used in the first act but comes into her own with he is a man, he is a child, not heard in the London original. And then there’s her duet with Cassidy Janson on the show’s most famous song, I Know Him So Well, still the biggest-selling UK chart single ever by a female duo when it was recorded by Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson. Audiences will be divided as to the merits of the side screens to show competing pieces of US and Russian propaganda as well as larger-than-life projections of the key players as they sing. in the cavernous Coliseum, I found the device useful, involving me in the action more than
I might have been.

One last thing. I’m assuming producers Michael Linnit and Michael Grade have done their sums, but given that this lavish, occasionally overblown production runs only until 2 June, they’ll need each one of those 2,359 seats full at every performance, I’d have thought.

Until 2 June at the London Coliseum: 020-7845 9300, www.chessthemusical.com

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