Chess review – Benny and Björn's cold war musical no match for tiddlywinks

London Coliseum
Even Alexandra Burke can’t save this lumbering story told with tracks by the Abba songwriters

Musicals are the toughest of mediums, requiring the score, book and production to all come together as a glittering whole. But only the score, written by Abba songwriters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, hits the heights in this cold war musical, first seen in London in 1986, which uses a chess championship as a metaphor for Russia-US relationships and tensions. Although “metaphor” suggests a subtlety that simply doesn’t exist here.

It doesn’t help that the two male protagonists are deeply unsympathetic. Michael Ball plays Soviet chess player Anatoly, apparently devoted to his wife, Svetlana (Alexandra Burke), and child. After winning the world title from brattish American opponent Freddie Trumper (Tim Howar), he ditches his family, stays in the est and shacks up with Florence (Cassidy Janson), previously involved with Freddie.

Alexandra Burke in Chess.
Underwritten role … Alexandra Burke in Chess. Photograph: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

There are some great songs – most notably I Know Him So Well, which is beautifully delivered by Janson and Burke. The latter brings musical and emotional light and shade to an underwritten role which predominantly requires her to stare into the middle distance and look sad.

Tim Rice’s book is a great lumbering thing and Laurence Connor’s slack production seems to work on the premise that if there’s enough flashy video you will be too stunned to notice that this is a musical devoid of characterisation with a plot doesn’t make sense. An evening that requires two pages of synopsis is one with a storytelling problem.

It doesn’t help that it is often hard to hear the words, even though everyone is almost always shouting. There is also no grasp of the politics of representation: the show is full of national and racial stereotyping, most notably in the Bangkok scene.

You can’t fault the cast for effort in what is a three-hour display of astonishing lung capacity. But the lack of emotional engagement and an absence of tension means you’d find more meaning and have more fun if you stayed home and played tiddlywinks.


Lyn Gardner

The GuardianTramp

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