BWW Reviews: CHESS, Union Theatre, February 15 2013
Rather like two nasty schoolboys contending that "my dad is harder than your dad", the USSR and the USA never missed an opportunity to squabble in the playgrounds of post-war sport. Bizarrely (and things get bizarre pretty quickly whenever his name comes up), the rise of the John McEnroesque Bobby Fischer gave the two blocs the chance to lock horns across the chessboards of the 70s, as the American challenged the Soviets' long held supremacy over the black and white squares. From such unpromising material, Sir Tim Rice, with Benny and Bjorn in the Lloyd-Webber role, fashioned the 80s musical Chess (at the Union Theatre until 16 March).
If that's more exposition than you were bargaining for, think again. Chess is packed with exposition - the history of the game, the Budapest Uprising of 1956, backstories of characters - if Simon Schama were to walk loopily on stage to explain the Bay of Pigs, we wouldn't be surprised.
Saddled with all that work to do and with Sir Tim's clunky rhymes (is it just me that finds listening to his lyrics like walking down a staircase with some of the steps missing?), the cast have their work cut out and some, if not all, scrape a 6-5 win. Sarah Galbraith, as the object of rival grandmasters' desire, sings with conviction and her duet ("I Know Him So Well") with Natasha J Barnes' Svetlana is the standout song.
Unfortunately, these two strong performances (and strong women) are not matched by Nadim Naaman, too passive as Russian iceman Anatoly Sergievsky and Tim Oxbrow too scowly as American badboy Frederick Trumper. Both men's parts are so underwritten that it's hard to discern what these women see in these somewhat unpleasant individuals.
There's a host of Cold War stereotypes and a few wobbly accents, but a fine turn from Natalie McQueen as a less than happy TV news reporter is a lot of fun. The tunes, as you would expect, are easy on the ear, if a little samey over a long show.
And that's the issue really. The show feels very long - there's just too much shovelled into the book. Sir Tim Rice may be a knight, but, like the game itself, Chess seems to have too many variations for me to follow.