I’ve been semi-resident in the stalls since I could undo a choc ice wrapper by myself, so I'm old enogh to have caught the original London run of the Tim Rice/Benny & Bjorn big hair musical back when shoulder pads were de rigueur and no self-respecting boy’s bathroom cabinet was complete without a salon size bottle of Elnett ultra hold. This newly updated version, sanctioned by Sir Tim, promises to add clarity to the murky tale of political machinations and a doomed love story played out against the backdrop of cold war chess tournaments.
Designer Ryan Dawson Laight has reconfigured the Union’s auditorium to a thrust, with seating around three sides of a white edged square echoing a chess board. Black and white gauze panels hang at the back as if the squares have floated up and away from the playing surface. The theme continues with Laight’s monochrome costumes occasionally pierced with a shaft of colour.
Featuring two stonking lead performances from the phenomenal Sarah Galbraith (last seen at the Union in Steel Pier and surely bound for a long and illustrious career) as Florence, a Hungarian émigré now resident in Britain, and the wonderful Nadim Naaman as Anatoly, the Russian chess master who falls in love with her and defects but can never forget his homeland, this is constantly engaging and often thrilling.
With strong female support from Gillian Kirkpatrick's iron lady Alexandra, the red-clad head of Anatoly’s team, and Natasha J Barnes as Svetlana, his deserted wife, there is much to admire as the cast tackle a myriad of emotions and the complex score (Mamma Mia this ain’t). Only Craig Rhys Barlow’s lacklustre referee-cum-narrator Arbiter, who should be a pivotal player but here seems extraneous, and Tim Oxbrow as American celebrity chess champion Frederick, singing at the very edge of his range and discomforting when struggling with the high notes, fail to match their female counterparts. Having said that, Obxrow’s act two opener One Night In Bangkok is a definite highlight, suiting his voice and character to a tee.
Simon Lambert’s six piece band of piano, guitar, bass, drums, violin & cello have a whale of a time with Christopher Peake’s superb new arrangements and, as always at the Union, the lighting, this time designed by Ben M Rogers, is simply exquisite.
Both Christopher Howell and Steven Harris are credited with direction and staging and are to be congratulated for having given this often too earnest virtually sung-through show a much needed makeover. The story is clear and we are given a simple narrative arc. There are some lovely delicate touches in the choreography and a gorgeous tap-dancing typewriting scene is one of many moments of pure genius.
The downsides really stem from the show itself. Firmly rooted in the dour eighties mega-musical era, laughs are thin on the ground and it all takes itself a little too seriously (we get the chess/politics allegory, we’re not that stupid, there is no need to spell it out time and time again).
As always, the Union boxes way above its weight giving us a production that defies its location in a tiny railway arch in the back streets of Southwark to often soar and only occasionally disappoint. By the time Sarah Galbraith is centre stage at the end of act two giving us a beautifully restrained reprise of the hit-that-never-was, Anthem, any reservations fly out of the door and it is a wonder to behold an artist of this stature at such close quarters. I doubt she’ll be playing rooms of this size for much longer.
Booking until 16 March 2013, a qualified triumph - Chess