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Review: CHESS - THE MUSICAL IN CONCERT, Theatre Royal Drury Lane

Nick Winston stages less of a concert and more of an almost-fully-formed production with clear-cut vision.

Review: CHESS - THE MUSICAL IN CONCERT, Theatre Royal Drury Lane Concert adaptations of musicals usually are a brilliant getaway when you want to dodge a dubious plot. The music properly gets the chance to shine while the narrative is taken in stride. Whether it's this diluted approach to the material or simply Nick Winston's clear-cut vision, Chess triumphs with this styling.

Penned by the Bs in ABBA, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, with the help of Tim Rice on lyrics and script, it sees the ferocious rivalry between Russia and the USA at the apex of the Cold War through the lens of a love triangle in a chess tournament.

Hadley Fraser and Joel Harper-Jackson go head to head as Anatoly Sergievsky and Freddie Trumper. Samantha Barks is Freddie's second and Anatoly's lover. Frances Mayli McCann is the Russian's estranged wife. Ako Mitchell is the Arbiter. They are joined by the enormous London Musical Theatre Orchestra and Chorus plus a talented young ensemble of dancers, who add richness and grandeur to the evening.

Chess has a long and convoluted history. The concept album made a splash when it came out in 1984, collecting accolades left and right. When it finally opened at the Prince Edward with a change in direction two years later, its reviews were a mixed bag. The team went back to the drawing board and reimagined it completely for its Broadway debut. Its reception was once again less than ideal, with many American critics violently disliking it (and this is to put it mildly).

Since then, the show has been toured and produced in a variety of versions (you can read all the ins and outs of it on Wikipedia, it's all very interesting!), and a major revival last hit the Coliseum in 2018. The iconic musical is now back in the West End very briefly featuring the above stellar cast as part of a series of concerts announced at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

Winston actually presents less of a concert and more of an almost-fully-formed production. It's impressively choreographed for what was initially believed to be the frontal performance of the score. With a set that feels like a modernist battle ground with two rising staircases, strong lighting beams throughout (Ben Cracknell), and a contemporary choreography (also by Winston) that runs through the two hours, the script is the only thing that's missing for this to be a full production.

Animations loom over the stage and, while their style and taste is slightly questionable at times, they carry the narrative smoothly - which is of essence in these circumstances. Barks and Fraser's voices marry heavenly (as we previously found out in Josie Rourke's City of Angels back in 2013), easily delivering the most impressive of performances. He is a pensive, suave Anatoly with ruthless ambition, in direct contrast to Harper-Jackson's cocky, coke-strung Freddie and his belligerent confidence.

Chess is for big voices. While Fraser is astonishingly comfortable with the role's vast range and Harper-Jackson nails his character's big belts and strong-headed numbers, the latter does, at times, strain his voice over high notes and lose enunciation. Still, the final product is breath-taking. Barks brings the house down with her rendition of "Nobody's Side" and "Heaven Help My Heart".

"I Know Him So Well" is a bittersweet moment between her and Frances Mayli McCann, who's heartbreaking and leaves a mark even with a reduced part. The sleek minimalism of the set combined with the colossal presence of the orchestra and choir at the performers' backs turns this show into an epic event.

If this follows in the steps of the latest high-profile concert musical - Bonnie and Clyde this past January - we can expect Chess to take up residence somewhere in the West End in the new year. And, with such a cast led by a director who blends the original essence of the piece with his own contemporary eye, "any objection is overruled".

Chess The Musical In Concert has two more performances today, 2 August.

Photo Credit: Mark Senior

From This Author - Cindy Marcolina

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