Review Roundup: What Did The Critics Think Of The Michael Ball and Alexandra Burke-Led CHESS in London?
The epic musical love story Chess starring Michael Ball as Anatoly, Alexandra Burke as Svetlana, Cedric Neal as The Arbiter, Tim Howar as Freddie, Cassidy Janson as Florence and Phillip Browne as officially opened last night, 1 May 2018, for a strictly limited 5 week season.
This is the first West End production of Chess since 1986. CHESS was written in 1984 by ABBA songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, and Tim Rice (Jesus Christ Superstar, The Lion King, Evita), and the original London production starred Elaine Paige, Murray Head and Tommy Korberg. That production, which ran for three years at the Prince Edward Theatre, followed a highly successful recording featuring the same stars, and included the international hit singles I Know Him So Well and One Night In Bangkok. Other well-known songs from the score include Anthem, Someone Else's Story, Heaven Help my Heart and Pity The Child.
CHESS tells a story of love and political intrigue, set against the background of the Cold War in the late 1970s/early 1980s, in which superpowers attempt to manipulate an international Chess championship for political ends. Two of the world's greatest Chess masters, one American, one Russian, are in danger of becoming the pawns of their governments as their battle for the world title gets under way. Simultaneously their lives are thrown into further confusion by a Hungarian refugee, a remarkable woman who becomes the centre of their emotional triangle. This mirrors the heightened passions of the political struggles that threaten to destroy lives and loves.
Featuring English National Opera's award-winning Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by John Rigby with choreography by Stephen Mear, this new West End production is directed by Laurence Connor, whose recent credits include School of Rock and Miss Saigon on Broadway and in the West End, Les Misérables on Broadway, and the international Jesus Christ Superstar arena tour.
Let's see what the critics had to say!
Matt Trueman, Variety: It's well enough played - Ball's sternly inscrutable Anatoly and Howar's cynical cheeseball make characterful counterparts - but ultimately a barnstorming score can't save a hokey plot. "Chess" remains a mug's game.
Lyn Gardner, The Guardian: Tim Rice's book is a great lumbering thing and Laurence Connor's slack production seems to work on the premise that if there's enough flashy video you will be too stunned to notice that this is a musical devoid of characterisation with a plot doesn't make sense. An evening that requires two pages of synopsis is one with a storytelling problem.
Quentin Letts, The Daily Mail: Laurence Connor's production is busy on both eye and ear. When the big side screens are not showing newspaper headlines, they give us live footage of the main characters during their solos. This is distracting and does the singers few favours, as we get close-ups of their dental work.
Paul Taylor, The Independent: Alexandra Burke has been given a new song "He is a Man, he is a Child" (from the Swedish-language version) to beef up the underwritten role of the Russian's discarded wife and her soulful renderings brings a pained authority to this woman's emotional confusion and she duets plangently with Cassidy Janson as Florence on the classic "I Know Him So Well". But it's not exactly a compliment to Connor's production that it makes you pine a bit for the concert versions of Chess.
Marianka Swain, BroadwayWorld: Laurence Connor deploys canny staging gambits to hold our attention during the match segments - from lively animations to montages illustrating the era's space race. He also introduces handheld cameras to create close-ups, plus a sleek, multi-level set from Matt Kinley with board game squares whisking aside or lighting up.
Paul T. Davies, British Theatre: Of course, no production can hide the weaknesses of the musical. One, it involves chess, two, the plot is actually quite simple, it's the political wrangling that make it unwieldy in places, and, three, the show is male dominated. I hadn't quite appreciated how long it is before Florence takes centre stage, longer for Svetlana. But there are many fantastic set pieces, (One Night in Bangkok, The Soviet Machine and the wonderful Endgame), and it's in the second half in particular the company harness the power of the piece and raise the proverbial roof. And the answer is yes. This IS the production of Chess we have waited 32 years for.
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard: Weak characterisation hobbles the performers. As the self-possessed yet vulnerable Florence, Cassidy Janson has something to work with. But Freddie is obliged to behave like the young John McEnroe's less agreeable twin, and Tim Howar toils to capture his snarling unpleasantness. Michael Ball as Anatoly gets to close the first half with the poignant song Anthem, yet feels underused, and so does Alexandra Burke, whose dignified and passionate Svetlana barely appears until the second half.
Stephen Dalton, The Hollywood Reporter: Howar is the weakest of the main vocalists, often straining hoarsely on rocky numbers while the ENO orchestra struggles to back him up with the required levels of raunchy swagger. But Cedric Neal lends alluringly warm, soulful, grainy tones to the marginal Arbiter character while Phillip Browne gives Machiavellian Soviet agent Molokov a floor-rumbling bass-baritone worthy of Paul Robeson. As a Cold War parable with apparently serious intentions, Chess is still firing blanks 30 years later. Even so, this unashamedly flashy revival is pleasingly well-stocked with weapons of mass distraction.
Daniel Amir, The Upcoming: Sets are techy and futuristic, the stage lined with screens that hit home the media frenzy around the match. They confront the actors with tense close-ups, but at times perhaps serve to detract from excellent choreography by Stephen Mear. At first glance, it seems a challenge to keep audiences tuned in to several minutes at a time of pure chess, but the drama hangs heavy around the characters. This is as much down to the tunes themselves as to high-calibre directing by Laurence Connor.
Tim Bano, The Stage: All the principal cast wobble through a ropey first act, with a few high notes that just won't come out however hard they shriek (and they do shriek). But thank god for Act II. They all settle, particularly Tim Howar's Freddie who belts out the ridiculously high Pity the Child very well. Ball is mostly on form as severe Russian Anatoly, but he mistakes insistent rubato for emotion. His Act One closer Anthem is the first moment when the show hits its stride.
Tony Peters, Radio Times: Director Laurence Connor directs this revival in the grandiose setting of the London Coliseum with plenty of spectacle that does justice to the venue and the lush score, brought thrillingly to life by the magnificent English National Opera orchestra conducted by John Rigby. But he does get carried away, relying too much on video projections that are fine when used to augment Matt Kinley's clever set, but endless close-ups of the actors made it feel a bit like a music festival. Things weren't helped by a dodgy sound mix that at times obliterated Rice's clever lyrics.
Alice Jones, iNews: Ball is the undisputed star - his "Anthem" is pure class - while Tom Howar snarls and struts and rattles the rafters with his high notes in the ludicrous "Pity the Child". Alexandra Burke has next to nothing to do, but delivers Svetlana's mournful ballads with due emotion. I'd have liked to have seen more of her. Her duet with a Celine Dion-esque Cassidy Janson, "I Know Him So Well", seems to stop time. It's still a spine-tingler.
Matt Wolf, The Arts Desk: The calling card for many will be the famously thunderous, vocally demanding score, which positions Chess squarely in the British mega-musical decade of the 1980s from which it sprang. Full-throated and often angry in tone, the piece is cut from the same cloth as Les Mis and The Phantom of the Opera, and Connor furthers the connection by at times specifically evoking the Rice-scripted Evita, another album-turned-stage-show whose 1978 West End bow preceded all these titles.The result doesn't invite much levity, notwithstanding some lederhosen-laden frolics and a high-stepping British Embassy male quartet who look as if they could have stepped out of Patrick Marber's springy revival of Travesties. (Cirque du Soleil gets an unanticipated visual nod during the rap-inflected "One Night in Bangkok" towards the top of the second act.)