Pawns in a moral fable
Endless hype, rubbernecking crowds, and cheers to raise the roof--notwithstanding all this, Chess turns out to be a fine piece of work that shows the dinosaur mega-musical evolving into an intelligent form of life.
The usual tactic in this form of entertainment is to draw on every orchestral and technical device the modern theatre has to offer so as to brainwash the audience into the illusion that they are witnessing a great event.
As this piece approaches its climax with thunderous reprises of Sweden's answer to "Land of Hope and Glory", something of this old habit persists; but for most of the way, the show deploys its armoury of resources to putting over a stronly imagined fable with wit, panache, passion, and a strong moral centre.
Suggested by the Fis[c]her-Spassky tournament, Chess follows the careers of two world champions--one Russian, one American--from an opening match in Italy to a showdown in Bangkok. Initially, with a Hindu temple number celebrating the origins of the game followed by the arrival of the principals on Robert [Robin] Wagner's checkerboard stage with the two kings taking their places on opposite sides of the board, you expect a plot cunningly geared to the moves of the pieces. It is a false clue.
The real aim of Tim Rice's book is to present the players as pawns in the surrounding political game; so that--for the defecting Anatoly--winning the championship means that he loses his family, and his Western girl-friend loses her Soviet father.
The conditions of this game are set up from the start, with Anatoly facing a brattish, fiercely anti-Communist opponent; on either side are the apparatchiks of Russia and America, and, separating them, a referee who fits into the scheme as a priest of chess.
Despite Jacobean theatrical interest in the game, chess seems the unlikliest subject for a blockbusting spectacle of this order; and its way of achieving that effect is partly through straightforward decoration.
Every change of location from the Hindu prelude to the Thai finale brings out a lavish tourist display. In the last of these, Trevor Nunn throws in a complete guided tour of Bangkok, including massage parlours, boxing queues of delectable courtesans, and more than Anthony Mingella showed of the city in a whole night out at the Aldwych.
But this rarely puts any strain on the narrative which, when its moment comes, invariably emerges in perfect focus. Much of the show, indeed, is extremely modest. Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus's score supports much of the vocal line with unemphatic ostinators and vamps; and its home style might be called Moog baroque.
Its main success is in achieving expressive melody that exactly follows the contours of Rice's lyrics. They occasionally hit the spoken word, only to rebound instantly into rhyme, but the line lengths get their own melody from symcopation based on the singer's thought processes sometimes stretching out like elastic, sometimes contracting like a clenched fist.
The one narrative miscalculation lies in the treatment of the two rivals. Anatoly (Tommy Korberg) has a searing top register and is most plausibly cast as a thoughtful Russian with his heart in the right place. But he does not compare in dramatic interest with the ghastly Trumper (Murray Head), first seen insulting the folk-dancing welcome committee and going on to flatten a member of the Press corps.
Head plays him with obnoxious star quality, and goes on to give an account of himself in one of the best numbers of the night--"Pity the Child", but thereafter he fades out.
Elaine Paige, as a torch-carrying second who switches sides to the defector, contributes a vocally blazing performance, though emotionally it counts for more in her divided duet with the abandoned Soviet wife than with her menfolk.
--Irvine Wardle, The Times, 15 May 1986
[NOTE: Despite the positive review above from The Times' daily critic, for two full years the weekly theatre listings in the Sunday Times contained negative quotes from their Sunday critic's review (next to last review on this page). To see the interesting conclusion of this story, click here.
Pawns caught in a counter-revolution
Four large-scale new musicals have opened in the West End of London in the past six months. All have ambitions of a kind. The different between Chess (Prince Edward) and the others--La Cage aux Folles, Les Misérables and Time--is that Chess, give or take a hiccup or two, possess the musical and dramatic language with which to realise its intentions, and they do not.
We praise relatively. Chess makes no attempt to occupy the astonishing territories of politics and human feeling, resiliance and sorrow pioneered by Stephen Sondheim (N.B. one more week of Pacific Overtures in Manchester, folks, and you'll see nothing like it in London all year), but it makes markedly superior theatre to Cats or Starlight Express and is the best thing of its kind since Evita opened at the same theatre in 1978. The amplification is contained. An orchestra plays in the pit. Is counter-revolution around the corner?
An operatta plot which would have delighted the mature Lehar--homesick international stars in exotic settings forced to choose between career, country, family and love--is dramatised in a buoyant, eclectic and stirring theatre-score by Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus. It is very European in provenance, combining pop-balladry with gut-thump disco rhythms (less than on the original album) and an exuberant range of classical references from consoling Bach for the chess games themselves to Schubertian folk-song ("I Know Him So Well") and Tchaikovsky and Khachaturian for the elaphantine delicacies of Soviet sporting diplomacy and its politicised will to win. The music, indeed, is wittier than the lyrics of Tim Rice, particularly when these are trying to be funny.
Chess is set with calculating picturesqueness in Merano and Bangkok, but the lovers appear unprepossessing and in rumpled, early middle age. Anatoly Sergievsky (Tommy Körberg) is the Russian challenger for the chess championship of the world; Florence, English but Hungarian-born (Elaine Paige), is the long-suffering second and lover of Frederick Trumper (Murray Head), the American champion, committed Commie-basher and hysterical sob-star.
Anatoly wears a bleak mask of wariness and confusion, as mindful of his minders as the Americans themselves. Florence is an amused and courageous little woman in dull dresses, heans and shirts, carrying a scruffy mac or coat over one arm. So where's the romance? Well, Mr. Körberg is a complete Swedish singer-actor whose mask dissolves into warm smiles of humor and affection and who rouses the house with a voice to hurl across valleys and fervent crescendo key-changes through a rising scale as effective as any in Sullivan's Lost Chord.
Miss Paige is transformed by Trevor Nunn's direction from the ravenous tourch singer on the album into a credible and touching figure the simplicity of whose singing in most of the show makes even more scalp prickling her fortissimo flares of burnished sound. Head can do little with the ugly American and Körberg, a thrilling recruit to the music-theatre in the West End, is the indisputable star of the show.
Not everything works. Trumper fades away in the second half; it is never clearly explained why Anatoly--who has beaten him, immediately defected and disobeyed instructions from both KGB and CIA to lose to the official Soviet challenger sent after him--should have to leave Florence anyway and go back to his Moscow wife. British siplomats are depicted with an evasive facetiousness that conceals the steely truths of today, and a new number for the Russian delegation adds nothing to what has already been said about the tearful ruthlessness of the Soviet machine.
It concludes, however, with a tiny imaginative detail characteristic of many in Nunn's sharp and elegant production: the feeble and disconsolate clatter with which empty plastic hotel beakers, thrown over the shoulder in grim rout and flying lightly through the air, hit the floor.
Robin Wagner sets the show in a silver and black box elivened from time to time by the polyglot babble of 128 television screens, and a swivelling, tilting floor. The back wall parts to reveal scenic and architectural landscapes which describe a global village in which there remains nowhere--neither the mountains of northern Italy, the streets of an Alpine city, nor the temple-towers of Thailand--that cannot be submitted to human calculation and measurement and, one way or another, squared off. Eash landscape is covered, down and across, with mathematical lines. A chessboard, of course, but also a net, a productivity chart, a cage.
--Michael Ratcliffe, Sunday Observer, 18 May 1986
Chess--gift-wrapped and gorgeous
It's as lush as Turandot. Dramatically, as slow-moving as Parsifal. To look at, as geometrical as a tiled floor. So the long-awaited new pop-opera Chess draws up at the Prince Edward, like some fantastically spangles barouche: it compels admiration but dwarfs the people within.
You realise in a blink that this gorgeous show, Anglo-Swedish in inspiration but American-financed in part, has been embellished by the most lively of Broadway choreographers and the most chic and stylish of Broadway scenic and costume designers, Robin Wagner (Annie) and Theoni V. Aldredge (42nd Street). Accordingly, the chess ballet prologue may be inferior to De Valois's "Checkmate" but is an eye-popping delight. The book and lyrics have all of Tim Rice's laid-back knowingness. The tunes of the Abba men Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus may occasionally sound like anybody's but the orchestrations of Anders Eljas gift-wrap them in the glint and sparkle of a mountain stream.
And here is a musical which has something to say. It deplores the way a noble game may be degraded by international feuding, the ballyhoo of merchandisers, the voracity of the media and the ferocious exhibitionism of both players and supporters.
The astonishingly old-fashioned opening Tyrol scene, all peasant dirndls and lederhosen, recalls Ivor Novello. But then the championship area finds the two contestants, a Russian and an American, involved in underhand tactics and overturned chessboards, to day nothing of a blackmailing KGB villain and the two players' private batter over the same woman.
Already stuffed to the gills with plot, Chess is further crammed to the eyeballs with the kind of visual stunts associated with the director, Trevor Nunn, who regards spectacle as the first glamouriser of thought.
On each side of the stage and behind it, vast sectionalised screens scream against the actors for attention. Giant TV commentators' faces alternated with pseudo-newsreel shots of off-stage action or even films of the USSR's invasion of Hungary. Enlarged chessboards illustrate the moves, but too fast to be followed. And--most tiresome of contemporary tricks--even as they are speaking, actors' heads are seen in video close-up. Overspill is the name of the game: you don't know where to look.
Riding high overall the hype, Elaine Paige avidly and resoundingly seizes the star role and turns in a performance outtopping her Evita--thrilling to watch and glorious to hear. She plays the hard-bitten Hungarian side-kick of the loud-mouthed American contender (Murray Head) but falls precariously in love with the Russian, who is married. After victory he defects but ends--we are asked to drop a teas--by returning to the homeland he had serenaded in Tommy Korberg's greatest moment in the role.
Miss Paige's two best numbers find score, lyrics and artist in perfect union. "Nobody's Side", a rueful, forboding of emotional disaster ahead ("Never be the first to believe, Never be the last to deceive"), and "Heaven Help My Heart", a passionate soliloquy as she half-realises her lover will probably leave her stranded.
For the rest the opera (little spoken dialogue) is feebly characterised and devoid of humor save for a duologue satirising embassy officials. The girl's half-hearted Russian comes to life no more than the oaf she forsakes: these are copybook types. And the synthetic situations keep repeating the same worth message, that the game matters more than the players.
But dramatic development is not possible in a show so over-anxious to grab your attention with a jolly parade of drum-majorettes, a picture-postcard impression of sexy Bangkok or a dazzling solo dancer (Tom Jobe). Perhaps if Mr. Nunn had been in at the beginning, he might not have been driven to swaddle in glittering incidentals the heart of any story: the people in it, and the excitement of the crises they face.
--John Barber, The Telegraph, 16 May 1986
Cue for a song
A musical called Chess and about chess, which never mentions an English opening, a Tantacour gambit, or any other chess term indicates a determination not to get bogged down in the technicalities of the game.
Anyone going to the Prince Edward who does not know a rook from a bishop will have as much chance of keeping up with the plot as a grand master.
I suspect that it is this distancing of itself from any true involvement in its own theme that gave me the impression I was watching a contrived device rather than a show with a heart.
Musicals, of course, are not expected to make any profound statements about the human condition.
But when they touch upon such complex issues as Soviet defectors and human rights, using chess as an illustrative metaphor, one feels vaguely let down that they are merely excuses for a song or a production number.
The plot is modelled on the various world championships in which the opportunities for national prestige by the Russians and Americans take precedence over the game itself.
Frederick, the American, is young, rude and arrogant and determined to make himself as unlikeable as McEnroe in order to get publicity and more money.
But his tantrums succeed in driving his Hungarian-born girlfriend into the arms of his Russian opponent, Anatoly, and losing him the match.
This improbably romantic development leads to Anatoly's defection from Russia, his desertion of his wife and children and a championship match in Bangkok between the defector and a new Russian contender.
One gets the impression that all this moving about is designed for excuses for production numbers that have nothing to do with chess.
In the first match in Italy, there is a lot of alpine costume dancing which takes one back to The Sound of Music. The second match provides a more exciting Siamese chorus number with echoes of The King and I.
Because the grand masters are either irritating or moody, usually sunk in gloom about their women or their countries, one has to look beyond the plot for any delights from this musical.
There is some surprisingly clumsy staging by such an experienced director as Trevor Nunn, but he can still enchant audiences with a stunning Asiatic mime number about the history of chess and with startling banks of TV images which brilliantly highlight the technological and contemporary nature of the story.
The music by Andersson and Ulvaeus of Abba is relentlessly tuneful, running though the action like an operetta and already proving its popularity by heading the charts with "One Night in Bangkok" and "I Know Him So Well. "
Tim Rice's lyrics give the impression of being mature and witty wherever one could actually hear them.
Elaine Paige sounds angelic in her soft numbers but has little opportunity to let herself go. As Anatoly, Tommy Korberg displays a powerful voice and Tom Jobe, as the chess Arbiter, doubles at times as a balletic whirling Dervish.
Chess has enough excitement to draw audiences but it is disappointing becuase if it were less mechanical and had more heart, it could have been something much more.
--Milton Shulman, The London Standard, 15 May 1986
Opening move is nearly a winner
In 1981, Tim Rice asked Abba's Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus to work with him on a musical. In 1983, they wrote it.
In 1984, they released an album of songs from it. And last night Chess opened at London's Prince Edward Theatre.
Five years in the arriving, it should be at least another five before it leaves.
The show is directed by the Royal Shakespeare Company's Trevor Nunn and has a cast of 44. Lavishly produced, it has a stage which rotates, rises, tilts and threatens to roll everyone on it into the stalls.
The set includes 132 [actually 128] TV screens on which ex-news-reader Robert Dougall makes a special appearance. Unlike Laurence Olivier's in Time, his nostrils never run away from his face. Maybe it's his BBC training.
Although the story centres on two chess world championships, the sight of people hunched over boards pondering what to do with their rooks is kept to a minimum.
Where it does occur, it is enlivened by them gesticulating a lot and pushing each other. Far-fetched? Bear in mind that for the 1978 world championship in the Philippines a cable was specially made to prevent Karpov and Korchnoi from kicking each other.
The champion in this show is cynical, nervy, American and played by Britain's Myrray Head. He wears training shoes, chews gum and has a rowing machine in his hotel room.
"Are you an asset to East-West relations? " the press asks him. "You can not be serious! " he replies. Does he remind you of anyone?
The challenger, a Russian, is played by Tommy Korberg. He wears boring trousers and has bugging equipment in his room. The trousers do not stop the American's adviser (played by Elaine Paige) from falling in love with him.
The show is about how politics and commerce intrude on chess and how single-minded you have to be to do well at it.
The music ranges from pastiche light opera to soft rock. Elaine Paige sings well but is not the star of the show. That honour undoubtedly goes to Tommy Korberg, whose singing is outstanding.
Chess is nearly a major triumph, but not quite. It could do with being a half an hour shorter, and adding more excitement to the choreography. It is gripping, eye-catching, but shallow.
I await a draughts, dominos or tiddly winks sequel.
--David Shannon, Independent, 15 May 1986
It is exactly 100 years since Steinitz crowned himself the first world champion of chess, and the sport that is Soviet Russia's chief pastime is now the subject of a decadent Western musical written by Tim Rice (lyrics) with Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (music), directed by the show-biz Shakespearian Trevor Nunn, lit by David Hersey and designed by Broadway's Robin Wagner (sets) and Theoni V. Aldredge (costumes).
The first half is set in the Italian mountain village of Merano, the second in the hotels and temples of Bankok. The Sound of Kismet, in fact, would not be too sarcastic a description, for the cold war of a Red-bashing temeramental American champion and the warm, well-behaved Russian challenger is merely the background to a rather muddled romantic story involving Elaine Paige as Florence, the American second, who falls in love despite conflicting ideologies. Elton John's "Nikita" video said it all more pungently in five minutes.
The story was confusing on the original album--which contains two first class chart-toppers, "Bangkok" and "I Know Him So Well"--and Mr. Nunn and company still fail to elucidate why the Russian wife of a challenging Anatoly is such a pain, what exactly is the political manoeuvring behind behind the exchange of Florence's father (not seen by her since she fled Budapest in 1956) for the Soviet redemption of Anatoly; or why Murray Head's histrionic mixed-up kid of a defeated champ should turn up in Bangkok as turncoat media commentator before feeding tips to Anatoly on his Indian defence.
In Bangkok, Anatoly is playing a new challenger (a Soviet nonentity whom we never see [incorrect, he is in the "Soviet Machine" number]) having defected to England for love of Florence. In Mr. Head's first act tantrums there are echoes of Bobby Fischer's behavior in the 1972 championship, and elsewhere the plot contains obvious echoes of Karpov and Korchnoi. But Korchnoi's complaint never ran to reprising a lot of Abba-style deadwood recitative that only reminds one of how good Jesus Christ Superstar was in that respect, and how dated and dramatically inert much of this sounds.
Unhampered by any such misgivings, Mr. Nunn transforms the material into a fine spectacle of chorales, operatic domestic scenes and Evita-like bobbing company tableaux, none of it as brilliantly distinctive as Hal Prince's work on the latter show, all of it superbly sung and above all, lushly orchestrated and ingenously manufactured through the sound system.
The stage lifts and tilts, the squares light up in bars and for the climactic all-Russian match, by now relegated to a diplomatic charade in the love triangle, the company assemble in severe black and white costumes intoning the names of past grandmasters through to Petrosian and Spassky.
The one performance that stands out is Tommy Korberg's as Anatoly, an immediately sympathetic performance that free-wheels expertly through the Abba whirligig of crashing chord sequences to register a defiant cry on behalf of which there are too few, you recall that Mr. Nunn's last anti-Soviet musical, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (with Messrs Previn and Stoppard) gave impassioned expression to the dissident's plight.
The proceedings are monitored and supervised by Tom Jobe as an athletic Arbiter who makes the most of his item with the other judges even if he does resort to outrageousness. It is hardly his fault that he resembles a disco-dancing Scandinavian maniac in the Eurovision Song Contest. The diplomatic wheels are oiled and then clogged by John Turner as the Russian second, Kevin Colson as a broadcasting executive.
The media hype and pressure on the contestants is conveyed by a battery of TV screens (all 128 of them, that is twice times the 64 squares) and the excited introductions by none other than former newscaster Robert Dougall (the admirable fellow who gave up reading the news because it was all so terrible).
Miss Paige, as usual, sings fit to burst, but she lacks a clinching element of emotional warmth (and should change her hairdresser), a quality you feel unthriftily squeezed out of Siobhan McCarthy's impenetrable spurned wife. Still, their duet confirms the song as one of the best pop numbers in recent years, thrilling in its undercutting syncopations, melodic thump and structure.
The show is extremely theatrical but, paradoxically, lacks a true sense of theatre, as signalled by the ornate Chinese ballet prelude, a needless device echoed by the relaxed Thai jinks after the interval. Not too many complaints about Mr. Rice's lyrics this time, some of them of almost Gilbertian wittiness.
--Michael Coveney, Daily Mail,
Tim Rice gives us a square deal
Tim Rice has a journalist's nose for a good story. His style is to encapsulate the complexities and subtleties of a vast theme in a short and snappy idiom, to render it instantly accessible to a mass-circulation audience.
It is therefore, both bold and courageous to make a musical out of the cerebral and sedentary game of chess and use it as a metaphor for the sinister brinkmanship that afflicts the East-West conflict.
But to the man who helped the British musical come of age with such unlikely subjects as Jesus Christ and a half-remembered Argentine folk heroine, such a robust challenge should not surprise us.
And, given the media hysteria that now turns even chess into a gladitorial contest between the superpowers, Mr. Rice's journalese way with a lyric could not be more fitting.
Where others might struggle to show off with a dazzling rhyming scheme, he is quite prepared to make use of everyday words like "nice" and "nasty. "
"Who needs dreams? " sings one of his anguished contestants. "Once I had them, now they're depressions. Hopes became needs and lovers possessions. " [well, he almost got it right]
I can think of no more vivid lament for the high price of fame and go-getting.
As hardly a word is spoken rather than sung, Mr. Rice is, of course, fortunate to have teamed up with Messrs Andersson and Ulvaeus, late of Abba, who have supplied music that is always tuneful and has occasional moments that are incandescent in the memory.
Yet for all its virtues there is a swings and roundabouts feel to the evening and although it wins on the strength of its ambition and some fine songs, there are losses, too, some of them quite needless.
If, for example, you have as a heroine a woman whose potent personality is enough to make the American lose his game and the Russian to lose his marbles, she must be given star treatment in musical terms.
Elaine Paige, who has a voice you can hear across London, has proved she can dominate a stage with the best of them. But she is not helped in her task here, indeed, she might be a woman who has just parked her Tesco trolly in the wings and pops out to check the meter for all the impact her entrance makes.
A firmer step from director Trevor Nunn might have helped elsewhere. The show is far too long and the quaintly Ruritanian revels which preceed the coming of the two champions belong to the era of the musicals Mr. Rice helped to bury.
I could have done without the silly rock and roll romp before they settled down to the serious business of the game, too. Speaking of which brings me to the battery of technology assembled on the stage.
To point up the media hype with banks of TV screens is fine. But any actor having to perform in front of dozens of blown-up images runs the unenviable risk of upstaging himself.
This happens all too often to Murray Head, the John McEnroe of Chess. Tommy Korberg is luckier in having some lung-swelling solos to perform on a relatively empty stage.
The whoops of the star-studded first night audience emphasised his triumph.
--Jack Tinker, Daily Mail, 15 May 1986
When pawns mean politics
International politics face the music in Chess (Prince Edward) an ambitious new musical by Tim Rice and Abba's Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, that just happens to be graced with the catchiest new score I've heard in years.
The music, a tuneful amalgum of operetta, hard-rock, soul, disco, and mainstream Broadway, is its strongest asset, and works miracles in diverting attention away from the flaws in the muddled plot.
On the surface, it is about a chess match between a Russian (Tommy Korberg) and an American (Murray Head) and the rivalry that develops between them, especially when the American's girlfriend (Elaine Paige) defects emotionally and falls in love with the Russian.
The Russian, in turn, uses the championship (set in Merano, Italy) to defect, abandons a wife and two kids, and seeks asylum in Britain. Eventually, though, he returns to the old country and his family.
Tim Rice clearly sees the rivalry between his adversaries in a broader context than the surface narrative, and the show is conceived as a metaphor for the dominance sought in the political arena by the world's two major powers. As for the chess players themselves, they are merely pawns in an all-too-familiar game of East-West politics.
Hardly a shattering premise.
But as imaginatively staged by Trevor Nunn, with good-looking choreography by Molly Malloy and dressed in high-tech sets by Robin Wagner, including 128 TV monitors dazzlingly synchronised, professional sleight-of-hand scores a triumphant victory of style over content.
And if, on occasion, the show's pace is redolent of a chess match itself, the music as I say, is always a palliative.
It is powerfully sung by Tommy Korberg, the undoubted star of the show, with vigorous vocal support from Elaine Paige whose way with a song, as we all know, could shatter plastic. What a shame she does not have a stage presence to match.
The Sunday Express, 18 May 1986
Chess: the losing streak
What I do not understand about Chess (Prince Edward) is why it needed Trevor Nunn to direct it. On the face of it, why not? Here is a big, swanky musical, by Tim Rice , and Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of Abba, about East-West confrontation in the world chess championship. On my left, the American title-holder, Frederick Trumper (Murray Head), and his glamorous second, Florence (Elaine Paige). She is Hungarian-born, having lost her parents in the uprising of 1956 when she was five.
This gives a certain piquancy to having on my right the Soviet challenger, Anatoly Sergievsky (Tommy Körberg), and his sinister second, Molokov (John Turner), who is clearly run by the KGB. Anatoly is calm and nobly brooding; Frederick is temperamental and loutish. The championship is stormy. Frederick resigns. Anatoly defects. (Why? Ed.) Never mind. Frederick, we find, is loutish because he comes from a broken home. Florence laments the fall of Budapest.
It is beginning to sound as if the thing had some bearing on real life, but the illusion is short-lived. Act II. Enter eight Buddhist monks and dance. This must be Buddhapest. No: it is Bangkok. The world title is defended by Anatoly (now UK) and challenged by a Russian whose identity is unclear. Anatoly now lives with Florence. Enter Molokov and his KGB attendants with bugging devices and revolvers; they drink heavily (Molokov cocktails?) and dance niftily. Meanwhile, the Americans enjoy massage parlours and other decadent things. The Russians tip generously. The Americans do not. The Americans trap Anatoly into a TV appearance where he is interviewed about his defection, and the wife and children he left behind, by none other than the ex-champion, Frederick. (All a bit incredible, isn't it? Ed.)
Well, yes, especially the end. The US and the USSR plot together to get Anatoly to lose,
otherwise his family will be in trouble. They enlist Florence's help by telling her that
her father's still alive in a Soviet jail, and... (You are making this up. Ed.)
All right, I won't reveal the end. But the fact is that this is a shallow, improbable
story masquerading as a serious musical. Its politics are carefully tailored to be
equally, and only mildly, offensive to both sides. A political charade ends up as an apolitical idyll with a Touching Human Ending: Rambo on a chess-board.
The staging has a huge high-tech expertise (multiple TV screens, hydraulic chess-board floor with transparent panels): it needs a technological MC rather than one of the world's foremost directors of classical drama. The acting is passable. The music is witty and accommodating; it imitates too many styles to have any real character of its own. Sometimes it sounds as if Khachaturian had written something for a Palm Court orchestra. Murray Head's singing is like sandpaper, and his voice can't even approach the higher register without cracking hideously. Tommy Körberg, from Sweden, is personable and pleasant. Elaine Paige dominates the scene, which is what you'd expect from a diminutive Hungarian, and her voice soars birdlike, with an acid edge and a warm sensual chuckle: steel and honey.
--John Peter, The Sunday Times, 18 May 1986
[NOTE: Despite the positive review from The Times' daily critic, for two full years the weekly theatre listings in the Sunday Times contained negative quotes from this review. To see the interesting conclusion of this story, click here.
How Rice's pawn show ends in stalemate
I first heard Chess 18 months ago in a concert version at the Barbican when it was a series of buoyant numbers linked by explanatory narration. It was far more enjoyable then than it is now in a full-scale Trevor Nunn production and the reason why is not hard to seek. The show's libretto lacks plausibility, fails to move one and simply cannot carry the political weight eventually thrust upon it. A musical is much more than a collection of numbers; to succeed it has to have a strong, sustaining dramatic idea (think of My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Sweeney Todd). But here it is hard to work out what that idea is. In the first half, taking place among the chess set in the Tyrolean town of Merano, it seems to be about the temperamental collision between the patriotic Soviet champ and his frenziedly neurotic American rival.
But in the second half, set in Bangkok after the Russian's defection to the West, it apparently becomes about the tawdry manipulativeness of two political systems both conspiring to blackmail the Soviet champion into returning home. It is not that the show lacks plot (far from it): what it lacks is a governing theme that would give it emotional momentum or even dramatic logic.
Time and time again, one is left boggling at the theatrical naivete of the piece and the assumption by Tim Rice, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus that the songs alone (there is virtually no dialogue) will cary the story. When the first chess championship erupts in disorder, the moment has no dramatic weight because you can't quite work out what happened.
When the Soviet hero, Anatoly seeks political asylum in the West by checking in with a couple of pinstriped twits in the British consulate, you look on (at least I do) in rank incredulity. And when Anatoly goes into a Bangkok TV studio to be interviewed by his former rival and goaded about his abandoned wife, you wonder if anyone in TV history ever stumbled so dumbly into such a trap. If this were a play, the air would be rent with raucous peals of disbelieving laughter. Why should the dramatic rules be any different for a musical?
The show has some decent numbers. But while they work in a recording, they make minimal impact in the theatre because they exist in a total emotional vacuum. Elaine Paige plays an Anglicised Hungarian who starts as the American's second and ends as Anatoly's lover. Leaving aside the question of whether a Budapest refugee could ever fall for a Russian, Ms. Paige has songs but no character to work on: her first-act belter, Nobody's Side, leaves you stonily unmoved because you don't really know who this woman is.
And when she and the Russian come to ballads of regretful parting, you don't give a hoot because you haven't seen any tangible demonstration of their love. Numbers in a musical are meant to intensify a situation in a way that words alone couldn't: here they are more or less pleasurable items whirling around in a void.
Trevor Nunn as director and Robin Wagner as designer are left with the impossible task of staging a show that has little connection with observable reality or dramatic sense (just why the Americans should be so keen to ditch the defecting chess-master was never clear to me). All one can say is that they do the job with cool efficiency.
The opening number, a potted history of chess danced by ivory pieces on black-and-white squares, looks beautiful. The evocation of Merano, all lederhosen, dirndls and White Horse Inn kitsch, is less embarassing than it might have been.
And the World Chess Championship hype is well caught on banks of TV monitors arranged in chess-board pattern; though, on a technicality, it is inaccurate to have the retired Robert Dougall reading BBC 2 News at a time of Reagan-Gorbachev summits and, or a moral note, footage of Hungary in '56 and the Cuban Missile Crisis seems almost obscene in this context.
Maybe the show is telling us that we are all pawns in the hands of the Russian and American political chess masters. But such a message seems defeatist nonsense in the light of world reaction to the Chernobyl disaster. In the end one is left with a clinically efficient production, a handful of good singing performances from Tommy Korberg as The Russina, Ms. Paige as his mistress and John Turner as his second. But a musical is only as good as its book and here one is confronted by an ichoate mess. As H.J. Byron said, in another context, ''Life's too short for chess.''
--Michael Billington, The Guardian, 16 May 1986