One of the key players in the ‘MegaMusicals’ club of the 1980s, ‘Chess’ was a megahit on both sides of the Atlantic. Springing from the minds of ABBA geniuses Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson, with lyrics by Tim Rice, the musical became of staple of the decade (despite being about a chess tournament being played at the height of the Cold War), with its hugely memorable synth-rock score which included the worldwide smash “I Know Him So Well”. Now, over 36 years later, the musical is back on the West End at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, for three performances only.
Set during the height of the political tensions of the 1980s, ‘Chess’ sees the American world champion Freddie Trumper (played here by Joel Harper-Jackson) preparing to defend his title against the Russian challenger Anatoly Sergievsky (Hadley Fraser). Trumper brings with him his assistant and lover Florence (Samantha Barks), who begins to question her allegiance to one man as she falls for the other. Things complicate further with the arrival of Anatoly’s wife Svetlana (Frances Mayli McCann), as tensions rise within the quartet, and they begin to question what game is really being played.
Following the Bonnie & Clyde production earlier this year, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane proved once again what a fantastic concert venue it is when ‘Frozen’ takes its nights off, and the venue suits the grandeur of ‘Chess’ brilliantly. The cavernous space gives the score plenty of room to fill, and the effect is breathtaking. Performed by the London Musical Theatre Orchestra and conducted by Freddie Tapner), the score sounds full and rich, with 38 talented musicians combining to create something that reminds us just how intricate and layered the score really is. The experience is further enriched by Ben Cracknell’s lighting design, which brings power at all the right moments (particularly during “Where I Want To Be” and “Anthem”).
‘Chess’ is a difficult show to follow if you’re unfamiliar with the material, and this production highlights that further, with some scenes omitted and feeling rushed through, making the story somewhat muddled. Some unnecessary choreography from the ensemble is more distracting than anything else, and although they’re very good, the addition of dance movement feels out of place. The show is also predominantly sung-through, much like many of its 80s counterparts, which again can make the show feel a little inaccessible for those not used to the style.
But for those audience members wanting to hear the score performed brilliantly in all its orchestral glory, this production is hard to beat. Not only do the musicians sound terrific, the vocals come from some of the finest talents the West End has to offer. Fraser makes for a commanding Anatoly, remind us what a truly great voice he has, and closing the first act with an incredible rendition of “Anthem”. Joel Harper-Jackson is also great as Freddie, putting his rocky pipes to good use and making “Pity The Child” hugely memorable. Somewhat weaker is Frances Mayli McCann, who sounds pleasant enough, but brings little in the way of acting to her portrayal of Svetlana, with “Someone Else’s Story” coming across more like a Disney Princess ballad. She is the only performer who feels like a singer in concert rather than a character in a musical and lacks emotional weight. The standout performance goes to Samantha Barks as Florence, who is simply stunning. She brings a purity and strength to the role, has fantastic chemistry with Fraser, and sounds divine. All of those nights as ‘Frozen’s Elsa have given her one heck of a belt, and she puts it to great use. Her performances of “Nobody’s Side” and “Heaven Help My Heart” are nothing short of perfection, nailing the notes and throwing in a few well-chosen riffs which complement the score as written rather than detracting from it. Barks really has come so far in her career and this performance really shows just how strong she has become.
As a rare opportunity to hear such an iconic score performed by a full orchestra, ‘Chess’ makes all the right moves, and a mostly strong cast deliver it well, with Barks truly being Queen of this game. If you can get down to London today, go.
‘Chess’ plays at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane for two more performances on 2nd August 2022. Performance runtime 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.
Reviewer: Rob Bartley
Reviewed: 1st August 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★