Chess The Musical plays in all senses of the word at The Festival Theatre tonight and is brought to life on stage by students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. The RCS have from the outset with this production of Chess given their students a massive challenge as the story, which revolves around American and Soviet cold-war politics of the era, is a difficult one to stage any musical around. Created by ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson along with lyricist Sir Tim Rice, this work received very mixed reviews in the original West End and much altered Broadway versions first time round in the 1980s and, unlike many other musicals with Sir Tim Rice’s involvement, this one has not seen any major touring revivals, and seems to often take a back seat to many of his better known works. Having said that though, Chess is a deceptive piece of work as, once you get beneath the at times rather dry political story of intrigue, there are great songs, great music, and great lyrics in this production.
Chess, as the name suggests, centres on those great struggles of the game between American and Russian “grand-masters” as they played out their games in an increasingly political atmosphere for domination of the sport as world champions. Our protagonists in this story are Frederick Trumper, The American (Barney Wilkinson) – brilliant, but arrogant and brash, and the far more restrained and reserved Anatoly Sergievsky (Jamie Pritchard), The Russian. Add into this combination Florence Vassy (Daisy Ann Fletcher) and our principal chess pieces are in place. Florence is actually the far more interesting character of this story as she is Freddie Trumper’s “second” and a Hungarian with a huge dislike of the Soviets who invaded her country when she was a child (1956) and imprisoned her father (whom she has never seen again and has no idea if he is dead or alive). Twist the plot a little with a love interest between her and the already married with children Anatoly who wants to defect from Russia, and the story starts to take some real depth to it. We now have two chess games playing out, the one on public view between our chess players, and the political one behind the scenes that is playing our players and everyone close to them like pawns on a far bigger chess board.
The first thing that needs to be said about this RCS production is the high quality of every aspect of this production, and the combined result is better than many professional touring productions that I have seen in the past few years. Everything is in place here, impressive sets that repeat the chess-board designs with good design skills. Lighting, computer visuals, audio and video, costumes, and choreography are all of a very high standard. This I think needs pointed out as all of these elements of stage-craft are by the RCS students (with some help obviously from teachers) and the more obvious presentation skills of the cast can easily push all of this equally important work into the background. We also here have a large and very competent orchestra that is skilfully positioned as part of the overall set design so as not to be intrusive on stage to the performance.
Ultimately though, this is a musical, and its performance will largely rise or fall on its principal cast. We have no fears on this account as there are some obvious potential stars of tomorrow in this production, and some classic musical numbers for them to perform. Barney Wilkinson seems perfectly cast as Frederick Trumper and seems to be so at ease on stage in his performance. His rendition of “Pity The Child” was one of the shows highlights for me. In stark contrast to Trumper’s arrogance is Jamie Pritchard as Anatoly Sergievsky and he is equally impressive all evening and on great form with “Anthem”. Holding these two very different characters together is Daisy Ann Fletcher as Florence Vassy , and out of all the principal characters, this is the one that not only requires some impressive vocal skills, but also some very good dramatic skills as this one role is written with many layers of emotional depth. Daisy Ann Fletcher manages to do both with style here tonight, and her duet of “I Know Him So Well” with Hayley VerValin (Anatoly’s deserted wife Svetlana Sergievsky) was an obvious crowd pleaser as one of the more recognisable songs from this show. Out of all the music in Chess this is the one from the pens of ABBA’s Benny and Bjorn that could easily be that great missing Abba Song.
Strong performances too from our other main characters - Shane Convery as Russian political manipulator Alexander Molokov, Jacob Stein as American political player Walter de Courcey, and Emma Torrens as the governing Chess body’s “The Arbiter”.
Two very contrasting acts here too. Act I sets us up for the first meeting of our main characters in Merano, Italy and Act II set a year later in Bangkok and its big opening number for the other main musical hit of this show – “One Night In Bangkok”. A well performed set, but I have to admit that this song has never been one of my favourites (but its huge commercial success did help greatly to fund the first stage production) and there as so many more overlooked songs here.
It always seems unfair to concentrate on the principals of a show like this when everyone involved has put in so much high quality work both on and off stage, but that is the nature of any review. Everyone involved in this production of Chess should be proud of their work. It is a pity that Chess the musical has fallen off the major musical radar a little over the years as the music and songs are outstanding. Perhaps with the re-freezing of the American and Russian cold war in recent years, the work will get seen more often as it takes on a more topical significance once again.
The one thing that does need noted here though is if students of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland can produce a performance work of this standard in all areas then the RCS is obviously doing their job of teaching all of these stage skills to a new generation (both technical and presentation) to a very high quality.
Review by Tom King