BWW Review: CHESS, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
In recent summers, Glasgow's Royal Conservatoire of Scotland has provided some of the most well-produced musicals at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and it's very pleasing to see them bring their latest ambitious venture across to the east of Scotland, after a successful recent run in Glasgow.
Chess premiered in London's West End in May 1986, sandwiched between the openings of Les Misérables in October 1985 and The Phantom of the Opera in October 1986. Its Prince Edward Theatre debut followed the release of a concept album in 1984, which included the Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson smash hit "I Know Him So Well", a UK singles chart-topper for four weeks.
Chess has had a chequered history, however, with numerous plot and song order alterations over the years, and its original Broadway run lasted only two months. In the programme notes of the 2008 Royal Albert Hall concert production (which starred Idina Menzel, Kerry Ellis, Adam Pascal and Josh Groban), co-lyricist Tim Rice writes that it is the definitive edition, and it's essentially this version which is presented by RCS.
The story of Chess (which, incidentally, is one of the show's song titles) develops the ancient and distinguished game into a metaphor for romantic rivalries and East-West political intrigue. The principal pawns form a love triangle: the loutish American Grandmaster Freddie Trumper, the earnest Russian champion Anatoly Sergievsky, and the Hungarian-American female chess second Florence Vassy, who arrives at the international championships with the American but falls for the Russian.
The score by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus is electrifying, and it is almost always done justice here by a vivacious and well-cast group of RCS students. Daisy Ann Fletcher, as Florence, follows in the footsteps of some of musical theatre's best - Elaine Paige in the original West End, and Rebecca Storm and Jacqui Scott in subsequent UK tours - but really makes the part her own, particularly in the more reflective songs such as "Heaven Help My Heart".
Barney Wilkinson as Freddie and Jamie Pritchard as Anatoly are a good match as the chief protagonists, and it's pleasing to see a more hard-edged Anatoly than usual in this production, which prevents the American from dominating their scenes together. Hayley VerValin, as Anatoly's estranged wife Svetlana, beautifully conveys "Someone Else's Story", which was an added song to the Broadway production.
The action in Chess is often frenetic, goaded on by the pulsating rock score, and the first half here has moments where the audience seems to get bombarded by louder and louder shouting, something not so noticeable in other productions. Sound design can play a part here, but perhaps also a question mark over the directorial decision about the Arbiter. It makes a refreshing change to make the Arbiter female, but - with so many tense principal characters already on stage - would it have been a better contrast for the Arbiter to be more serene?
Huge plaudits go to lighting designer Grant Anderson and designer/video designer Kenneth MacLeod for a plethora of absolutely stunning visuals - six large video screens complement the action with great effectiveness and ingenuity, projecting a clever mix of prerecorded visuals and live-action video filming of the stage action. Caption capers such as 'Trumper tantrum' and setting one of the scenes in a bar known as 'The Reclining Buddha' highlight the attention to detail which has gone into this production.
Director Andew Panton and musical director David Higham can be satisfied that they have given their students (across the disciplines of acting, music and production) a great experience and showcase, in a venture which definitely deserves a longer life.
The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland's Chess runs at Edinburgh's Festival Theatre until 1 April.