Checkmate for Chess at Grand Canal Theatre

Posted on March 23, 2011


I must admit, I knew very little about Chess (the game or the musical) as I sat down to review the latest musical from the ever growing Grand Canal Theatre repertoire. I knew about the Abba links and as such expected something similar to Mamma Mia with chess pieces.

What I underestimated was both Benny and Bjorn’s ability to write a good tune and Tim Rice’s largely un-scrutinised ability to pop a lyric in with them to fill the gap.

Chess is full of fantastic musical numbers, some you might know – “I Know Him So Well”, “Pity the Child”, “Anthem”. Others you won’t but if you’re anything like me you’ll want to afterwards – “Nobody’s on Nobody’s Side”, “Someone Else’s Story”.

The story is set in 1979 but it has a futuristic feel to it, largely because the set is made of up of colour changing squares that make you feel like you’re trapped inside a Rubix Cube. But this serves to aid the story of the show which details the story of two rival chess players and the various institutes that use them as pawns in their own corporate chess game.

Chess is unusual in that both the company and the orchestra are more or less on stage at all times – the instruments becoming almost like extra characters on the stage while the all seeing Arbiter (David Erik) frequently produces a trumpet from wherever it is that he’s hiding it behind his back.

The cast are all excellent, each displaying different styles. It is not, for example, a surprise to read that James Fox who plays American champion Freddie has played the lead in Billy Joel’s musical – his voice is that powerful, emotion-filled style. His rendition of “Pity the Child” is spine-tinglingly magnificent. It highlights his ability not just as a singer but as an actor – the anguish is so evident on his face.

Daniel Koek too is superb as Anatoly, displaying a deeper, tenor style of singing and performing “Anthem” he commands every member of the audience’s attention.

Though I was a bit sceptical of her following the first numbers with Freddie, Shona White ends up almost stealing the show with her fantastic performance as Florence, the woman who leaves Freddie to be with Anatoly. Her voice blisters with power and singing out the end of the show with the lines from “Anthem” she leaves the most lasting impression on a viewer, not simply because she is the last cast member we see but because she was simply brilliant.

The supporting cast are also excellent: David Erik sifts in and out of scene as the narrator and man trying to instil the idea that the game of chess is bigger than those playing it. Poppy Tierney is wonderful in her short stint as Svetlana, Anatoly’s wife in Russia. Steve Varnom and James Graeme are excellent as the scheming Molokov and Walter, the Russian player’s second and media executive looking to exploit the players for the biggest stories.

Sometimes it’s nice to see something fresh, with no previous knowledge or idea about it. This is how I viewed Chess last night and it was refreshing. As aforementioned I expected Abba on a board game. What I got was a sometimes raunchy, emotion packed rollercoaster. The plot may have been a little outrageous at times but it was glossed over by the musical brilliance of the piece.

Chess runs until Saturday 26th at Grand Canal Theatre. Tickets on sale from Ticketmaster

Posted in: Reviews