Review: Chess

A successful opening night for the Musical Theatre Society production


When one mentions the names Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, the iconic band ABBA will immediately spring to the minds of the majority of people, followed by the heart-warming and cheerfully awful musical Mamma Mia! However, with the help of lyricist Tim Rice, this dynamic duo also managed to create a musical so stunningly beautiful and emotionally charged that it completely wipes the floor with its jukebox brother.

Chess, a story of love, hope, manipulation and betrayal set at a chess tournament within the context of Cold War mind games between the Soviet Union and the United States of America. With the added spice of politics, this musical makes for perfect viewing; therefore it is wonderful that the UCLU Musical Theatre Society decided to take on this greatly moving production.

Under the astute direction of Philippa Douglas and Natalie Denton, this production thrilled from start to finish, capturing Cold War tensions perfectly, lightening the mood with elements of humour, and tugging on the heart strings with the tragic story of American second, Hungarian born Florence Vassy. Unfortunately the directors seem to have made an error in choosing a production that follows a similar structure to the Broadway version of the show, rather than the original and superior West End version.

As a result the timing of matches move much closer together, there’s a little too much cheesy dialogue, the so-called love between Florence and Anatoly is handled far too swiftly and the overall winner of the chess match is changed to suit an American audience, which had always seemed a rather pointless decision as the American player Freddie Trumper is one of the most unlikable characters in the show, despite his painful back story.

The set design was simple but immensely powerful, with one side of the stage flushed in red lighting in front of a back drop of the Soviet flag, and the opposite side washed with blue lighting before and American flag. Thus, ample work was done to ensure the audience knew exactly what lies at the core of this emotionally charged musical, and what manipulation and tensions drive the plot forward, influencing and affecting all of the major characters.

The use of black outs on the other hand, was a little too excessive. As a transitional device it works very well in allowing props and setting onto the stage, however being used between the majority if not all of the scenes broke up and fragmented the plot. If this is to be continued, then perhaps some music could be used to distract the audience from the many awkward scene changes.

Hannah Gillett’s choreography makes fantastic use of the small space of the Garage Theatre Workshop, which in some productions run the risk of being overcrowded. Intricate, exciting and very demanding, the strong chorus performed every step with energy and enthusiasm, clearly enjoying themselves on stage. Most notably the dances for ‘Merano’, ‘The Arbiter’ and the hilarious and wonderfully camp ‘One Night in Bangkok’ stood out as highlights of the show, for the sheer energy and gusto with which they were performed.

The musical make-up of the show is highly complex, with difficult rhythms, wide ranges and pace which constantly change throughout the show to deal with. The show is littered with big money belt notes and fast paced lyric juggling which can cause the downfall of even the greatest professionals. Overall, Musical Director James Melling and his band tackled the score reasonably well.

The music flowed relatively smoothly and the players in the band are all obviously talented musicians. However, at times the band was far too loud, drowning out the actors, and tripped up on the intricate score, losing themselves somewhat in the confusion. This lead to actors being put off, songs and lyrics that were out of time an underwhelming sense that what could have been a superb production was unfortunately let down by a lack of sufficient communication between band and actors.

The star of the show was without a doubt the magnificent Lizzie Jay in the role of Florence. Not only did she give an absolute powerhouse vocal performance, but she conveyed the inner struggle and emotional tragedy of the character with simple and understated beauty.

Without Jay’s presence the production most definitely would have suffered; the creative team found themselves a fantastic leading lady. Able to hit the top notes, (particularly in ‘Nobody’s Side’), without even so much as a wince, if she were to pursue a career in performance one would imagine that her attempts would prove very fruitful.

Tom Chesover’s Anatoly combined a sweet voice with beautiful tone to a soft and unassuming performance. A little too nervous at times, lyrics were forgotten on various occasions but were sufficiently masked by a highly emotional and stirring rendition of ‘Anthem’.

The perfect foil of Anatoly’s sweetness was definitely the raw talent of Luke McGarey as Freddie. Another performer able to reel off one top note after another, pushing the boundaries of his fantastic tenor range, he was able to win back some sympathy for his troubled and unlikable character with a moving performance of ‘Pity the Child’, which recounts the character’s troubled childhood. Perhaps his acting is a little weaker than his vocal ability, but one cannot deny that he is a raw talent that was in no way overshadowed by his fellow performers.

Theo Hopkinson in the role of Alexander Molokov, Anatoly’s second and a Soviet puppet master was another highlight of the production. Humorous, understated acting and terrifically manipulative and forceful, there is no doubt that he, along with Freddie’s American business manager, Walter de Courcy (Tristan French), are pulling the strings of this highly political plot.

It was a shame that Naomi Fawcett had little stage time as Anatoly’s wife, Svetlana, as she was evidently an extremely gifted actress who stood up well against Lizzie Jay in the deeply moving and beautiful song ‘I Know Him So Well’.

Overall this production can be considered a success. It was entertaining, moving, powerful and funny. A little erratic at times and let down slightly by first night nerves and at times a confused band, with a little more time for polishing up and ironing out the mistakes (made in the most complex parts of the show), this production has the potential and the strong combined talent of the performers to be one of UCLU Musical Theatre Society’s greats. Unfortunately however, with just two performances left, it would appear that time is unforgivingly running out.

UCLU Musical Theatre Society’s production of Chess runs at The Garage Theatre Workshop on Thursday 7th and Friday 8th February
Running time approximately 2hrs/2hrs 15mins
Performances start at 7.30pm, doors open at 7pm
Entrance £3

Photography: Saloni Miglani