Despite being around 800 years old, chess – the game – is, improbably, back. Last year, Netflix released The Queen’s Gambit, a seven-part miniseries about a tortured chess prodigy who struggles with addiction while striving to become one of the world’s best players. Set in the 50s and 60s and starring actress and model Anya Taylor-Joy, the show brought clout and glamour back to a tradition sorely in need of it. Released while many were still in lockdown, the show had a captive audience, became Netflix’s most-watched miniseries ever, and brought interest in the game, particularly among female players, to an all-time high.
A rising tide lifts all boats, so naturally, six months after the release of The Queen’s Gambit, Australia is looking down the barrel of a star-studded national tour of Chess, the 1986 musical featuring music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of Abba, and a book by Tim Rice.
Best remembered for its second-act hit One Night In Bangkok – a staple of classic hit radio – the musical is a romantic epic concerning a love triangle that arises between two chess grandmasters, one Russian and one American, and the Hungarian-born refugee caught between them. The musical is decidedly less than well-loved – of the 2018 London revival, this very publication said “you’d find more meaning and have more fun if you stayed home and played tiddlywinks”.
In a second serendipitous moment of topicality, the show – which also serves as a hugely unsubtle metaphor for cold war-era tensions between Russia and America – arrives in Australia the same month that The Courier, a Russia-set cold war thriller starring Benedict Cumberbatch, hits Australian cinemas. The 2021 cast includes many of Australian TV and musical theatre’s A-, B- and C-listers – Natalie Bassingthwaite, Paulini and Rob “Millsy” Mills among them – promising a night that’s sure to be, at the very least, a gloriously camp spectacle ... right?
Well, yes and no. Although undeniably fun, Chess in this Australian incarnation is also long, overwhelming and, like a game of chess itself, dastardly complicated. Those lured in by the promise of glitz and glam will find themselves faced with a plot that features, among other things: KGB and CIA spies; multiple absentee parents; jilted lovers; seemingly random media commentary; and, most frequently, frantically sung gags about the state of geopolitics in 1986. It is a ridiculous, high-energy swamp of plot – a plot that, were the musical’s story more familiar, might have come across. Instead, by the second act, it’s almost impossible to tell who has double crossed whom, whose alliances lie where, or why nearly anything is happening.
This problem is exacerbated by the production’s pared-back staging. Onstage, there is only a small, elevated platform designed to look like a chessboard, which is surrounded by the 25-piece orchestra. Although this works in some respects – it’s nice to see the orchestra, which is particularly zippy and engaging – it also means that there are no distinct set markers of place or time. The plot moves back and forth between Europe and Asia, and, by the second act, it’s hard to tell where, exactly, everybody is. (Sometimes, this is helpful: this production avoids the often-racist staging of One Night In Bangkok that other versions of Chess seem to struggle with.) The costumes, although often beautiful – the KGB agents, in particular, look wonderful in their Matrix-y getup – don’t particularly help with grounding the show, either.
But those who aren’t concerned about an easy-to-track plot will find plenty to love. Many of the songs in Chess number among Benny and Björn’s best: One Night In Bangkok is a classic for a reason, while Nobody’s Side – one of Bassingthwaite’s bigger numbers – probably would have been a classic had Abba recorded it. Abba fans will find juicy metacommentary in the content of the songs themselves; although the lyrics were written with Rice, these songs sound just as concerned with Andersson and Ulvaeus’ respective divorces as the bulk of Abba’s late-period ouvre. The intensely paranoid Nobody’s Side, in particular, feels like a piece of score-settling:
“I see my present partner
In the imperfect tense
And I don’t see how we can last
I feel I need a change of cast
Maybe I’m on nobody’s side”
The cast is game, too. Although Bassingthwaite isn’t necessarily the strongest singer, she gives it her all as Florence and is a capable, engaging lead, even when the plot becomes overwhelming. Paulini, although underused as the jilted wife of Russian grandmaster Anatoly, absolutely kills in her brief moments. Her voice is a peerless instrument on this stage, almost to the show’s detriment. She brings depth and intrigue to the decidedly underwritten Svetlana, and is a much-needed anchor in the show’s second half.
One gets the sense that the moments when the cast can simply show off its talent – as when Bassingthwaite and Paulini duet on the sublime I Know Him So Well – is more the point of Chess than its plot. Fans of the musical may have a good time; the rest of us will undoubtedly find it, like the game itself, far too complex to bear.
• Chess: the Musical is touring to Adelaide (27-29 May), Perth (3-5 June) and Brisbane (8-10 June)