Fifteen years ago, in what can only be classed as a folly of youth, I went all the way to Frankfurt to see a production of Chess. I tell that anecdote to highlight two key points: firstly, that performances of this musical aren’t that easy to find, and secondly that I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Chess nut. You can trust me, then, when I say it’s worth the bus trip to Morningside – because Edinburgh Music Theatre’s interpretation of the story is among the best I’ve seen.
Since its West End opening in 1986, Chess has had an appropriately chequered past. Written by Tim Rice and – of all people – Benny and Björn out of ABBA, it’s a 1970’s tale of Cold War intrigue set against the backdrop of a world-championship chess match. Being a musical, however, it’s also a schmaltzy love story; the juxtaposition doesn’t quite work, and the book’s been through a string of revisions in an attempt to find a winning endgame. Yet for all the plot’s faults, the soft-rock score ranks among my favourites, and there’s a sly humour to be found underpinning some of Rice’s more preposterous rhymes.
Without a doubt, the greatest strength of Edinburgh Music Theatre’s version is its engaging and hard-working ensemble. When they fill the stage, their voices truly fill the room, and I loved the little story vignettes that were often built into their tableaux. It’s a huge group of people, yet they’re made to seem even more numerous by a slew of rapid costume changes: far from the black-and-white styling you might be expecting, we’re treated to an unashamed riot of lumberjack shirts, sparkly pom-poms, leather hot-pants and flamboyant jeans.
There’s a gorgeous creativity to Mike Davies’ direction too – not just in the broad sweep, but in the minor detail, bringing out insights that are unexpected and new. A trivial example will show you what I mean: there’s a particular moment in a particular song when every director has the cast stamp their feet. It’s what the music seems to demand, and it captures the menace inherent in the East – vs – West storyline. But in this production, when the time comes, they look towards each other with cloying false smiles – turning the number on its head, to uncover a glorious comedy of manners.
Unfortunately though, the sheer size of the chorus occasionally overpowers the production. The iconic Anthem, for instance, is all about solitary defiance – and the impressive Kenneth Pinkerton was perfectly capable of holding the stage for it, without having twenty-odd singers troop into the foreground. More significantly, the chorus and the principals sometimes seemed to be in competition, with the leading actors’ lyrics often drowned out by a swelling accompaniment.
Among the other principals, it took me a while to warm to Ali Floyd as the American grandmaster Freddie Trumper; he lacked some of the boorish aggression his lyrics seem to imply. Still, he comprehensively won me over with his character-defining solo ‘Pity The Child’, which he performed with both vicious anger and electrifying restraint. Josephine Heinemeier also delivered some show-stopping moments as his partner Florence, while Lauren Gracie made an all-too-brief appearance as the Soviet grandmaster’s wife Svetlana. Gracie has a stunning voice, and it’s just a shame that the script (which, to be honest, isn’t all that big on women) makes us wait so long to hear it.
In the end though, the crowning achievement of Edinburgh Music Theatre’s production isn’t the solos or even the set-pieces, but the way it tells the story. The pace occasionally slips, but at their best they segue seamlessly from song to scene to song – building a sense of coherence and immediacy that even professional musical productions often lack. The climactic number ‘The Deal (No Deal)’ is genuinely exciting, presided over by a mischievous pair of god-like figures who delight in the havoc they’ve wrought. So if you’re tempted by this one, be sure not to miss it – that would be a folly at any age..
Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 12 March)
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