Friday, 8 June 2018

"Chess", English National Opera, London Coliseum, 31/5/18

For such a well-loved musical it is surprising that it has taken so long for a West End revival of Chess to materialise. Then again, given its endless revisions, perhaps it isn't such a wonder. But, finally, it has been revived, albeit in yet another version that aims to bring the material closer to its original source material - the concept album. To a great degree it succeeds and the fact that the orchestra of the English National Opera are involved ensures a rich musical sound.
Tim Rice has said that the addition of Walter de Courcey in the original stage production was an unnecessary complication and this new version in removing him does indeed feel more streamlined and uncomplicated. That said it is not a perfect production but it does hold so much promise.

Directed by Laurence Connor who also, presumably (as there is no credit given), created the new book. He does a competent job but his construction is a little stunted in the dialogue department, which tends to promote the necessary without any real flair. Connor even rewrites some of Rice's original dialogue unnecessarily. The blunt, sometimes abrupt, nature of the scenes also crosses to Connor's song placements and lyrical choices which are also a little questionable if we look at them for dramatic purposes and I wonder if this was an early issue given the production was billed as "semi-staged" even if the final product was far from "semi". But whatever the cause, these are elements that should be easily rectified should this production re-materialise at some point.
Connor's actual direction is serviceable and he does have some interesting staging ideas but he is certainly blessed to have a brilliant choreographer in Stephen Mear whose musical stagings are witty and intelligent and include the best staging of "Merano" I've seen. Perhaps Connor needs to learn to take more daring risks in his work.
Connor is also fortunate in the design of Matthew Kinley which is beautifully supplemented by the  extraordinary video designs of Terry Scruby. Kinley's is an abstract design upon which realistic fixtures are essayed and one wishes they had gone the whole hog with an abstract production, but Connor is clearly uncomfortable with this idea (much like Trevor Nunn in the original production) and has only one abstract sequence throughout. Patrick Woodroffe's lighting is also another element that brings further dimensions to Connor's sometimes stilted staging. Christina Cunningham's costumes perfectly represent that period of cross-over that existed between the 1970s and 80s though why so many of the male leads wore similar spectacles is a bit of a strange puzzle. Anders Eljas' ornate orchestrations, naturally, sound thrilling and the synth sounds are evocative of the period and come through brilliantly in Mick Potter's excellent sound design.

The ENO ensemble do a fine job in adjusting to a more non-operatic sound and it would be difficult to identify them amongst the veteran musical theatre performers though, surprisingly, the ensemble is not used as much as they could have been.
Michael Ball heads the cast as Russian Grand-master "Anatoly Sergievsky" and he does a fine job of portraying a man weary of the political machinations of his government. Ball also acts through the melodies and lyrics rather than just singing them though he is sometimes limited by static direction. As his wife, "Svetlana", Alexandra Burke offers a powerful, though somewhat breathy in the lower register, voice and peppers her moments with soulful trills which can be a trifle distracting. She emotes appropriately but is a little too big in the role. Connor should have advised her that sometimes less is more. Cedric Neal is a wonderful "Arbiter" with a stunning vocal performance and presence and Phillip Browne brings a threatening deep tone to the Soviet "Molokov". Browne's performance is appropriately mannered and charming but we also get moments where we see "Molokov" reveal his other aspects, notably during "The Soviet Machine". Tim Howar's "Freddie" is something of a revelation, despite Connor's clunky handling of the character. Howar's voice has the appropriate rock edge and easily handles some of the highest notes in musical theatre for a male. He is also charming and vulnerable in the role yet simultaneously dangerous. What was once the lead role of "Florence" is played here by Cassidy Janson who, unquestionably, brings a dynamic voice and presence to the role. Janson is also able to play "Florence" as hard and as soft as and when required and it's just unfortunate that the role comes across as lesser under Connor's hand. But when Janson is given those moments to shine, she blazes and none more so than with her duet with Burke, "I Know Him So Well".

A sometimes brilliant production, this new version of Chess is ultimately a flawed work - though not necessarily due to its original authors and whilst the new book certainly retains a simplicity it does feel a little pressed in bringing various plot-strands together at the very end. There are, however, moments of theatrical bliss but, sadly, also tepid staging in Laurence Connor's uneven direction which is inevitably salvaged by Stephen Mear's brilliant choreography and the work of the various designers. Still not perfect, but Chess is clearly on the right road to redemption.

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