Saturday, 19 March 2011

'Chess The Musical', Edinburgh Playhouse, 23/9/10

Here's a review I wrote last year.
As I shall be seeing this production again in a few weeks I thought I'd put my original views on the production up before I review it again:

I had eagerly been awaiting this production directed by Craig Revel Horwood as I am a long standing fan of ‘Chess’. Even despite some of my doubts when the idea of actor/musician was mentioned. Even when the first production shots appeared displaying costumes which wouldn’t look out of place inside a fetish club. I still needed to see this giant of a show which has too long been overlooked!
So what about the production itself? Well, it certainly is very different to any previous incarnations of ‘Chess’, and I think many of the elderly patrons of the theatre present (and there were lots of them!) were certainly taken aback with the look and attitude of the show.

Revel Horwood has directed a thrilling, exciting, funny, gripping and outstanding production which will certainly give ‘Chess’ a new lease of life in the 21st century.
It is, by no means, perfect but the production, as a whole, has a massive ‘Wow’ factor about it; veering away from the previous realistic presentations of the material Craig Revel Horwood interprets the musical with a visual flair and uses theatricality to the piece’s advantage. He uses his actor/musicians almost as a greek chorus who observe and interact whilst playing the intricate music faultlessly. Others have mentioned that the choreography (also by Revel Horwood) could have been executed more sharply but this really is a minor point. The orchestration by Sarah Travis is truly impressive. She manages to produce a sound that is as powerful as the original production whilst also giving the music a fresh lease of life. Again I applaud the cast who play seemingly effortlessly (and without the aid of sheet music) whilst acting, singing, dancing and assuming some rather uncomfortable looking positions (pity the cello players!). The instruments are also incorporated into the show as would-be props such as microphones and it doesn’t take the audience long to forget that the cast also acts as the orchestra. No mean feat with such a large orchestral compliment!
The set and costume design by Christopher Woods is also a refreshingly different approach and, though some of the costumes could easily be used in a live sex show, they work well for such an intelligent show. The idea of chess as a game and metaphor is reinforced throughout with references to ‘pawn’ throughout (especially on the video floor during Bangkok). Though the video designed by Jack James at times appears out of synch with the vocals it all still works well although one wishes that more had been made out of the 'newscasts' the last of which has no video whatsoever yet is still staged as if being presented to an off-stage camera.
The sound, at least where I was seated, was excellent. Clear, unclouded and quite stunning.
Lighting by Ben Cracknell used a lot of straight lines and square shapes with the only noticeable deviation to this idea being at the very end of the show (the idea of chess as metaphor certainly was reinforced in this production). The lighting design was quite appropriate and sympathetic to the show though during ‘I Know Him So Well’ especially I felt the stage was too well lit.
Revel Horwood also adds creative touches such as the ‘boxing ring’ scenario between Florence and Molokov. The Embassy officials, the merchandisers (with a musical reference to ABBA’s ‘Money, Money, Money’) are comedic highlights. The sexual relationships are also brought to the fore between the leads with onstage foreplay present which contrasts to ‘One Night In Bangkok’ which seemed quite tame to me. The dramatic element is also heavily present although Revel Horwood does let the production lose some coherence toward the end of the show.

Whilst it is evident that some music and dialogue was excised (primarily to cut down the running time) it is, for the most part, done unobtrusively. Indeed, as much as I adore ‘Merano’ it wasn’t missed (although it was originally intended to be in the production) as the show ploughed ahead with almost breathless energy. Only toward the end were some of the cuts missed; I, for one, wished Revel Horwood had kept ‘You And I’ intact and let the show end there rather than having a truncated reprise of the afore mentioned number followed by an unexpected, and seemingly almost inappropriate, reprise of ‘Anthem’. There are, in my opinion, better places for cuts - the dance section of 'The Arbiter's Song' and the musical interludes in 'The Story Of Chess' serve no real purpose and would have cut the running time down and may have allowed for 'Merano' to be restored, at least in part. But anyway ...

The cast were sublime. The company excelled and it’s a shame to have to concentrate on the leads. But I shall.

James Fox as ‘Freddie’ was a revelation. Many have said Adam Pascal to be a perfect ‘Freddie’ but I really think Fox has the advantage. He presents the American player with a vitriolic temper which verges toward the violent in his interactions with ‘Florence’. Fox’s ‘Pity The Child’ was probably the most amazingly performed rendition I have witnessed. Full of emotion and pain Fox’s voice soared which was complimented by Revel Horwood’s simple staging. The only problem here was that, with the American’s big number transported to act I it almost leaves the character with nowhere to go (though it is staged impressively effectively and appropriately). When ‘Freddie’ sings the shorter ‘Pity The Child (Reprise)’ (otherwise known as ‘A Taste Of Pity’) following ‘The Deal’ it feels like an anti-climax and the lyric has no relevance. I might as well mention here that ‘The Deal’, always my favourite part of the show, was a brilliant piece of staging with excellent performances throughout.
Daniel Koek as ‘Anatoly’ brought a new youthfulness to the role along with a great voice. His portrayal made ‘Anatoly’ a more three dimensional character than is usually given. Here the Russian displays a darker, more selfish, side not seen before; making him more like the American than he would care to believe. It also lends credence to the choices he must make at the end of the show. ‘Anthem’ was a vocal triumph as was ‘Endgame’.
David Erik’s ‘Arbiter’ was a dominant force throughout, roaming around like some S&M M.C. whose shadow fell upon the proceedings of the evening. His physical and vocal flexibility added to the idea that a romantic game really was being played as if by the Gods of Olympus.
James Graeme and  Steve Varnom, as ‘Walter’ and ‘Molokov’ respectively, gave us rounded, interesting characters with Graeme revisiting a character previously played in a production of ‘Chess’ also directed by Revel Horwood (which can be heard on ‘Chess: the complete cast album’) but here he presents a radically different interpretation to that previously given. Here ‘Walter’ is presented with an Englishman but with all the slime required of the part. Varnom is an impressive figure and throws enough weight around to be a potential KGB agent. It’s interesting to note that all the Russians have an appropriate accent in this production.

As ‘Svetlana’ Poppy Tierney, who I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing in a production of ‘Aspects Of Love’ where she excelled, started off as quite a weak character upon her entrance with ‘Someone Else’s Story’ but soon presented a more vicious face during ‘The Deal’ and her interactions with her estranged husband. These interesting and different facets to an otherwise two-dimensional character were employed well.

‘Florence Vassy’ is certainly the primary role within the show and Shona White doesn’t disappoint. Although she is the only actor not to perform a musical instrument in the show she gives us a ‘Florence’ who is still something of a child, attracted to strong men (replacements for her long lost father) despite the fact that she knows they are no good for her. It’s almost as if we see ‘Florence’ coming to terms with adulthood and her past before our very eyes throughout the show. Her relationships with both ‘Freddie’ and ‘Anatoly’ each move from childish giddiness to full tormented realisation as the mist fades from her eyes in each case. White’s vocal delivery is well suited to the role and, though she can be a little nasal at times, she reigns supreme. ‘Nobody’s Side’ and ‘Anthem (Reprise’) were fine showcases for her abilities.
The show moves and flows effortlessly (again credit to the actor/musicians here) but I do feel the ending was a little unsatisfactory. It simply felt a little rushed and almost came out of nowhere. As I’ve mentioned before I would rather the final reprise of ‘Anthem’ had been cut rather than the sublime ‘You And I’ which would have offered more emotional insight into the end of the romance between ‘Anatoly’ and ‘Florence’.
I’ve also mentioned that I feel strongly that ‘Pity The Child’ (despite the incredible staging here) really should be in act II. And I think the same of ‘Heaven Help My Heart’ which rings as unbelievable when ‘Florence’ sings of loving the Russian who she’s just met. It would certainly make more sense for her to sing about these emotions a year down the line in act II.
But these are just my quibbles on an otherwise amazing production. A production which deserves to have a shot at the West End of London. With a little bit of tweaking in staging and design (the tour has a 5x5 ‘chess board’ which is of an appropriate size for a touring show but could be expanded to a full 8x8 board were it to be launched into a larger London theatre) the production has the energy, passion and talent to make it a deserving winner.
There is a part of me that would love for this show to recieve a live cast recording - to capture the glorious cast, the sublime sound the orchestra makes and the energy that only live recordings can deliver. I can hope.
I look forward to seeing 'Chess' again. And again.

1 comment:

  1. We clearly saw a different production. James Fox was by far the weakest of a trip of poor leads his acting overwrought and hammy something he clearly knew being reduced to little more than a skeleton by the end of the production whereas Steve varnom seemed to have gained very one of Fox's lost pounds and a small child beside. the little and large of shouty ham acting. A travesty not a triumph