Posted by: Natalie | February 14, 2011

Chess the Musical

We had so much fun last Thursday night! Not only did we have yet another wonderful meal at Poppy Red (Crumble and custard the order of the night!) in the Arcadian, but we went to the Hippodrome to see Chess the musical. Possibly the worst musical I may ever see, but by far one of the most entertaining.

Created by ABBA’s Benny and Bjorn, along with Tim Rice, this oh-so-80’s show has had a spectacular re-fit courtesy of Strictly Come Dancing judge, Craig Revel Horwood. And to be fair, it needed it – the plot alone is not enough to draw in the punters. Despite the obvious issues, the whole show was an exhibition in true, real and spectacular talent. Not only were members of the chorus suited and booted in the most amazing outfits (Horwood) to depict pieces of a chess game, and not only did they fulfil the basic requirements of musical theatre in that they could sing and dance to a fantastic degree, but they each played an instrument. There was no orchestra in the pit, there was no need, as the performers danced the stage whilst playing the ABBA Boys’ score. A full orchestra acting and performing ballet moves around the actors – it was phenomenal to the point where I felt each and every one of them was almost wasted on touring a show which was so heavily lacking in any kind of point.

I believe the show only originally ran in London for 3 years, having not toured the UK professionally since 1989 (I could be wrong in this) and although it could be the musical which turns off anyone teetering into the genre, it is such a shame it is not performed more often, if for nothing else but comedy value! The basic plot is this; a renegade chess player (yes I used the word renegade – he doesn’t play by the rules, unless you count the rules of Chess) from the US is set to play his Russian rival for the title of World Chess Champion. But as his temperamental and artistic flare dictates, the weight of such genius ultimately causes him to spiral out of control and into a seemingly irrecoverable failure. On top of this, he has to contend with his manager and lover leaving him to embark on affair with his said Russian rival.

As the story is set against the threat of Cold War with the chess games acting as propaganda (somehow?), the Russian (Anatoly Karpov) then defects to the US for the American hussy (Florence), leaving his wife and two children behind in the soviet wilderness. At this point you would expect that the narrative would follow the American (Freddy) and his fight to redeem himself, win back his woman and the ultimate Chess title. You would think. As the second half begun, the American looks to make his come back as a TV commentator for the competition twelve months later in Bangkok. He sings his signature tune, One Night in Bangkok, then promptly disappears. Other than a little commentating to the exceptionally well staged TV camera, Freddy’s only contribution from here is to tell Karpov that the only winner is Chess (Go Chess!), and to this mistress be true.

This is mainly because from here the story makes even less sense. Karpov’s wife bizarrely turns up to win him back despite the fact he callously abandoned her for another woman. He struggles with this less than you imagine as he ends up going back with her just so he can help Flo’s recently-realised-not-dead-dad escape from a soviet prison, despite the fact that if he chose to lose the chess game, the not-dead-dad would be released anyway. And that’s it. My friend Laura who also went to see this at weekend said she “was confused how it just ended.” Yup. That’s pretty much the feeling.

The Arbiter

But there is something truly wonderful about watching a really bad plot – it makes you appreciate just how good every other aspect is – as well as providing the watcher with a show probably more entertaining than something mediocre. The staging, direction, costume, music, singing, dancing, acting were generally pretty damn superb. There was a slightly sinister slant to a lot of the costume, a gothic bent if you will with the Arbiter almost something demonic in his leather pants and open chested trench coat. It was a spectacle indeed with the major numbers belted out to make the skin tingle. There was genuine emotion felt at moments due to the talent of voice, not unfortunately due to a sensitive moment in the story as you never quite grasped the gravity of ‘tragic’ scenes or why they were tragic to begin with.

Utterly superb, splendid and stupid all in one. A delight and a giggle. It is undoubtedly one of the best nights out I will have all year.

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