Review of 'Chess'


Chess is a musical that is seldom staged nowadays so when I heard it was coming to the Coliseum with a big star (Michael Ball) though, unfortunately, Murray Head (from the original production) pulled out of the production as the last minute. The Coliseum is a great place for such a classic (now) of west end theatre and added a certain gravitos to the evening. Yeah, full admission: I am a big fan of the musical so I am going to be a bit picky here…

Chess is a story in two parts. The first half follows the build up and clash between two Chess champions: The Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Michael Ball not pretending too hard to be Russian but, as required for the role, cool and collected) challenging the American Freddie Trumper (Tim Howar who was as completely OTT as is required for this role looking for all the world like a young Michael Douglas to us…). Amongst the politics involved with the clash, Florence Vassy (Cassidy Janson), lover and manager of Freddie falls for Anatoly. When the game finishes Anatoly shocks the world as he defects to England taking Florence with him. The second act sees several years passing with a new match between Anatoly and the best of the Russian Chess program with Freddie providing commentary. Under pressure from the Russians and Florence will Anatoly crack?

Though the program bills this as “semi staged” I would wonder what they would mean by “fully staged” with sets as complete as I have ever seen them in a west end show. The stage extends into the audience with the ENO Orchestra often fully visible at the back of the set in a small area (it is nice to see them). Large black and white squares of a chess board decorate the back of the stage and the sides of the auditorium that ingeniously double as video screens including showing historical video during the initial chess match. This all serves to draw the audience into the show and really brings it alive. The central section of the stage raises and lowers to speed up set changes maintaining the fast pace.

In the first half I found Michael Ball (as Anatoly) a bit of a mixed set of performances as the action comes thick in fast. In the second half he comes alive with an impassioned and considered performance. Throughout he is calm and measured holding the attention of the audience whenever he opens his mouth. Wonderful and clear. Tim Howar (as Freddie) is very much like a 80s rock superstar, belting out the numbers with an equally enthusiastic performance. Perhaps not as musically sophisticated as Ball but very entertaining. Cassidy Janson (as Florence) was not having a good day during our performance obviously struggling for clarity throughout. In the first half she showed poor range though after the interval (perhaps after a bit of vocal treatment) was much better. Perhaps a bit like Elaine Paige in terms of huskiness but showing signs of brilliance. My my knowledgeable companion described Alexandra Burke's (playing Anatoly's Russian wife Svetlana) voice “not as forward a sound, breathy and covered”, yeah, I was not entirely enthralled either though, to be fair, it is a relatively small role. The duet “I Know Him So Well” between Burke and Janson is performed powerfully with the clarity of Burke very much contrasting with Janson's obvious problems. I am sure it was just a bad night for Janson as she is obviously generally a much better, cleaner singer as her talent does shine through.

The signature song “One Night in Bangkok” is significantly extended here with a big number involving gymnasts using cloth ribbons hanging down onto the stage as well as the suggestive antics of many dancers. “Embassy Lament” where embassy works complain about having to process Anatoly's defection is incredibly precise and a lot of fun. The piece “Der Kleine Franz” performed in a bar had a sense of sheer exuberance and, perhaps, reality more so than any other piece that I found almost sounding, oddly, like something from “Fiddler on the Roof”.

The show was very much appreciated by the audience raising to their feet en-masse as soon as the curtain came down. I have say I was one of them. Powerful and moving stuff performed at a terrific pace. Yeah, often a confusing plot (even after many years of seeing and listening to this show I am still figuring out the plot) and a somewhat melancholy ending (for a musical) it is still an amazing piece of musical theatre with enough to keep every audience member entertained.

Rating: “Nearly perfect, but not quite”

Review Date: 2018-04-30

London Coliseum

Location: London (England)

Address: St Martin's Ln, London WC2N 4ES ENGLAND

Public Transport: TUBE Leicester Square TUBE Charing Cross

Telephone: +44 (0) 20 7845 9300


Home the English National Opera, the London Coliseum is easy to find with the rotating globe on the roof with it's name on top of it just north east of Trafalgar Square, just up the road from St Martins-in-the-Fields.

In recent years the Coliseum has been substantially refurbished and looks very much better for it from the wonderful wood, brass and glass main doors to the completely restored auditorium it is a sight to behold. Despite this new work it is still quite crowded on performance nights with access to the three balconies (Dress Circle, Upper Circle and “Balcony”) restricted to a single staircase.

Despite being home to an opera company there are a surprising variety of performances here with the acoustics and sounds systems very good indeed. Visibility is pretty good throughout though can be tricky on the Balcony (those with vertigo should give these seats a miss in any case). For full-stage performances I would recommend the dress circle to be able to see the entire stage and enjoy the best of the sound.