Review: Chess

Will Amott was blown away by GMTG’s ‘Chess’

Its stylish surface could be thought at first to betray superficiality, a black-and-white photograph with high notes and high kicks, but Guild Musical Theatre Group’s Chess managed to indulge its audience with slick production and an emotive narrative.

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The highly-acclaimed musical essentially follows the story of the World Chess Championship over the course of two years, and is set against the background of Cold War political intrigue.

The boorish American champ, Frederick Trumper (Joe Belham), faces off with his Russian competitor, Anatoly Sergievsky (Jake Dorrell) – and a British-Hungarian woman, Florence Vassey (Bethan McCann), finds herself in the centre of the resultant drama. Romantic entanglements always fuck things up in plays, don’t they?

McCann’s chemistry with Dorrell was evidently above and beyond that with Belham, but arguably that works in the context of the play, but a little more friction would have been welcome.

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I saw the show on the final night, Saturday, and feel that this should be clarified as I have heard mixed ideas about other nights. On the night in question, Belham’s voice unfortunately was not up to its usual incredible standard, occasionally breaking mid-song, and there was a finale performance of “Nobody’s Side” following the cast’s bow. The bow itself also induced small delight as the staid Arbiter (Jade Goddard, who has terrific stage presence) broke into a small bout of Beyonce’s Single Ladies with the dance troupe and put a smirk on everyone’s faces.

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The dance troupe themselves, elsewhere in the show, were used to great effect and were a welcome addition. They added another point of interest during the chess matches, although perhaps the style of dance could have been varied more in those sections.

Other major players in the game included manipulative Alexander Molokov (a commanding Lior Sayada), Walter de Courcey (a sharp Dan Burke, conjuring comedy out of thin air at some points) and Anatoly’s estranged wife, Svetlana Sergievska (Megan Probert).

Probert’s appearance was pivotal but the character is slight, and she struggled, understandably, to stamp much individuality on to it. She did deliver a beautiful singing performance, however, particularly in “I Know Him So Well”. Sayada and Burke, meanwhile, seemed far more assured on stage and Sayada’s “The Soviet Machine” was exhilarating, punching the audience in the gut with its verve and vigor.

McCann’s performance, as Florence, was near-faultless. To gush is improper really, but not to gush would be an insult, so I will say that the post-bow performance of “Nobody’s Side” was the best musical performance I’ve seen at the University of Birmingham.

It was electric. The audience gave her a standing ovation. My Saturday night was made. A friend I attended the show with has played the song on repeat ever since, and we both jump at the chance to say how it does not compare to McCann’s version.

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GMTG’s Chess was polished and professional. There were issues at times with diction, and some songs understandably dragged in comparison to others, but generally the cast were on point and one would be hard pressed not to have felt the warmth of the audience’s affection. It was a Disney feature wrapped in steel, and a privilege to watch.

The show was on from 21st to 25th May each night at 7pm, and was performed in the Debating Hall in the Guild.

Photos by Georgia House