No matter how frosty the West’s relations with Russia, is there really any reason to roll “Chess” out of cold storage? For all the bangers of its retro score, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ eighties musical, based on a brainwave by lyricist Tim Rice, simply doesn’t stack up. Never has, never will – and Laurence Connor’s grandiose semi-staged revival for English National Opera fares no better at coaxing a coherent, satisfying evening out of a canny concept than any of its predecessors.
An attempt to encapsulate the testy stalemate of the entire Cold War in a game between rivalgrandmasters, “Chess” has a checkered history. A turbulent but respectable West End run was followed, 30 years ago, by a drastically revised Broadway premiere that lasted little longer than the Cuban missile crisis. It’s been tinkered and toyed with ever since, but the fact that original bookwriter Richard Nelson is no longer credited tells you all you need to know. Despite a strong set-up, the plot of “Chess” all but caves in.
It pits the cerebral Russian chess champion Anatoly Sergievsky, played by a turtlenecked Michael Ball, against his brash, cash-driven American counterpart Freddie Trumper. (Tim Howar bursts out of his private plane like a middle manager convinced he’s a sex god.) As the two size each other up across 64 squares — cue plenty of concentrated, stopclock-slapping contempt — newsreel footage of space and arms races flash past, each side matching the other move for move. Geopolitical stalemate, like chess, starts slow, but soon heats up. One wrong move and it’s game over.
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Neat as the comparison is, it makes for dry drama, but “Chess” over-extends itself with a naff-as-hell narrative. The victorious Anatoly defects to England, abandoning his wife (Alexandra Burke) and child for Freddie’s manager (Cassidy Janson) and, when the two meet again, Trumper’s chess career reduced to the commentary box, he seeks to get his own back by colluding with Russia. Their rivalry, effectively, follows the rhythms of the game: Each man swaps sides and tries to take the other’s queen. The problem is that metaphor leads and material follows, fast becoming ludicrously over-stretched.
Stylistically, “Chess” is caught between chamber musical and stadium rock; an intricate, psychological drama drowned out by big blaring songs, many of which feel peculiarly trite. Connor’s bare-stage production, played on a grid of neon squares, ends up at once overblown and exposed. Two big screens try to take us into the action, but only distract from it, while expansive globetrotting crowd scenes feel unfeasibly kitsch, even outright offensive. Rural Italians in (er) lederhosen squeezing ABBA out of accordions is one thing, but a Bangkok populated by Buddhist icons and ladyboys feels beyond the pale (especially since most of the actors playing the locals are.)
And yet, all of that adds to the off-kilter charm of “Chess”: so improbable, so disjointed, so absolutely eighties that, for all its flatness, it becomes strangely watchable, albeit through wide eyes. Besides, it’s eminently listenable. There is, after all, a reason it’s semi-staged.
English National Opera’s recent musicals, as well as providing a much-needed box office boost to an organization on the edge, have all sought to celebrate the musical prowess of neglected scores. Whatever its structural faults, “Chess” (like “Sunset Boulevard” and “Carousel” before it) contains some weapons-grade songwriting and, backed by the ENO’s full in-house orchestra, fronted by a range of powerhouse voices and arranged by Anders Eljas, it sounds as sumptuous as ever before. Even its stylistic miscellany becomes a strength, as Andersson and Ulvaeus switchblade from twinkling Tchaikovsky-esque balletics to brash Springsteen-style stadium rock song by song. The vocals are just as jumbled: Phillip Browne’s turbo bass suits the might of the Soviet Machine, while pop star Alexandra Burke owns “Someone Else’s Story.” Best of all is the versatile Cassidy Janson, who rips up the retro rock anthem “Nobody’s Side” before melting into the melody of “I Know Him So Well.”
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.