Chess – I knew it so well

ChessWas it really back in 1984 when I went along to see the West End opening of Chess, starring Elaine Page and Barbara Dickinson?

Reviews back then were mixed, as they were when it transferred to New York’s legendary Broadway. Many musicals would have died after receiving reviews of this nature, but Chess soldiered on and is now one of the world’s most popular stage shows.

Now it’s been revived under the directorship and choreography of Craig Revel Horwood, he of Strictly Come Dancing fame, and without doubt this new updated touring production is so different from the original that I barely recognised it.

Set in the late 1970s it tells the story, albeit very slowly, of two of the world’s greatest chess masters. This was a period when the USA and Russia did everything in their power to prove that their policies as to how a country should be governed were superior to any other, whether on a political or intellectual front.

Freddie Trumper, the current world champion, is defending his title against challenger Anatoly Sergievsky. Both men are accompanied by their ‘seconds’ -Florence Vassy for Freddie and in the case of Anatoly, his wife Svetlana.

It becomes clear that Freddie is under considerable mental strain. This is made worse as his devoted second Florence falls in love with Anatoly, who responds in kind, only to subsequently discover her feelings are torn between the two protagonists. To complicate things even more Anatoly’s wife Svetlana appears to have similar feelings towards Freddie.

The storyline of Chess has always been an unusual one for a musical and although Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson of Abba fame, together with top lyricist Tim Rice, were the brainchild of the show, there are only two numbers that stand out enough to be acclaimed enthusiastically by a packed audience – One Night in Bangkok and the undoubted show – stopper I Know Him So Well, a duet sung, portraying tender feelings and compassion, by love rivals Florence and Svetlana.

The principal roles are played to perfection by James Fox (Freddie) Shona White (Florence) Daniel Koek ( Anatoly) and Poppy Tierney ( Svetlana) while the remainder of the cast, suitably dressed to represent chess pieces, are certainly original.

Eye-catching is the choreography, lighting, and set design – highlighted when, with both protagonists seemingly concentrating on what their next move on the chess board should be, their true inwards thoughts are translated by the battles whirling inside their minds courtesy of  suitably dressed cast members, lashing out at each other to prove they will not be beaten.

It may have been greatly altered, but it’s still well worth a Hippodrome visit, giving anyone who saw the original the chance to see just what a difference a day makes – or in the case of Chess, 27 years.

Chess – the musical.

Birmingham Hippodrome until 12th February.