Chess: The Musical review – Abba’s ridiculous cold war musical is absurdly complicated fun

Natalie Bassingthwaite, Paulini and Rob ‘Millsy’ Mills feature in a serendipitously timed revival of the less than loved musical
Regent theatre, Melbourne

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.

Alex Lewis, Brittanie Shipway and Mark Furze.
Alex Lewis, Brittanie Shipway and Mark Furze. Photograph: Jeff Busby

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.

Paulini and Eddie Muliaumaseali’i
Paulini, pictured with Eddie Muliaumaseali’i, ‘absolutely kills in her brief moments’. Photograph: Jeff Busby

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 of Chess: The Musical.
The cast of Chess: The Musical. Photograph: Jeff Busby

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)


Shaad D'Souza

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Black Rider review – Tom Waits, William S Burroughs musical is beautiful but cold
Meow Meow steals the show from a diverse – or disparate – cast, but the cult fable resonates regardless

Van Badham

21, Sep, 2017 @7:07 AM

Article image
Muriel's Wedding: the Musical review – gutsy and brash sendup of all things Australiana
Abba is everywhere in PJ Hogan’s musical adaptation, which pulsates with high-spirited fun but eschews the film’s feminist ending

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

19, Nov, 2017 @5:04 AM

Article image
Mamma Mia! review – thank Abba for the music (and leave your cynicism at home)
Capitol Theatre, Sydney
Mamma Mia! is not a great musical, but for an audience that still holds a candle for Abba, that’s beside the point

Cassie Tongue

16, Feb, 2018 @1:02 AM

Article image
Chess review – Benny and Björn's cold war musical no match for tiddlywinks
Even Alexandra Burke can’t save this lumbering story told with tracks by the Abba songwriters

Lyn Gardner

02, May, 2018 @2:07 PM

Article image
The Book of Mormon review – a visionary musical masterpiece, genital jokes and all
South Park creators’ coming-of-age satire on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a work of comic genius

Stephanie Van Schilt

06, Feb, 2017 @2:44 AM

Article image
Kinky Boots review – Cyndi Lauper's frockbuster musical a head-over-heels delight
The Australian production of the musical that has conquered Broadway and the West End is polished, infectious and a joy

Brigid Delaney

23, Oct, 2016 @2:12 AM

Article image
Smash-hit musical Hamilton confirms Melbourne season: ‘Mask up and we’ll be there’
The Sydney production is the only one playing anywhere in the world but the Victoria season will start in March 2022, with tickets on sale in July

Elissa Blake

06, Jun, 2021 @8:00 PM

Article image
Melbourne festival: pyrotechnics, art trams and 'the best work anywhere, ever'
Jonathan Holloway takes the helm as director, promising a line-up that includes a fire-run through the city’s laneways and some ‘transforming’ theatre

Steph Harmon

03, Aug, 2016 @12:20 AM

Article image
Powderfinger, Paul Kelly, Adam Liaw and more: the best live streams for Australia and beyond
The Brisbane band’s one-off reunion is just one of many big things happening on a small screen near you. Here’s what’s coming up

Stephanie Convery and Sharnee Rawson

14, May, 2020 @8:10 AM

Article image
Curtain raiser: the best Australian stage shows to look forward to in 2021
Tentative or tenacious, the country’s big companies are approaching next year with varying degrees of optimism

Kelly Burke

07, Dec, 2020 @9:00 PM