‘Chess: The Musical’ (Pleasance Theatre: 18 – 22 November ’14)

Photo: Oliver Buchanan

Photo: Oliver Buchanan

“Without Clark’s poise on which to pivot, the story might have given up and defected to the bar.”

Editorial Rating: 4 Stars: Outstanding

Priests, poets and psychiatrists all agree that the border between pure genius and melancholy madness is chequered with 64 black and white squares (with a white one always on the right). Next time you encounter that tramp in Potterrow Port, the one who’s convinced he’s Marcel Duchamp, ask him whether mad people gravitate to chess, or if chess makes them so. Chances are he’ll mutter darkly about the Lasker-Reichhelm position, but he might respond that the dedicated player lives “a monk-like existence and know[s] more rejection than any artist.”

The real Duchamp, the one who’d never been seen dead with a trolley from Aldi, directed those words to American prodigy Bobby Fischer, upon whose bizarre biography, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (loosely) based a musical.

Inspired by the 1972 match between Fischer and Boris Spassky, the ABBA alumni spun a yarn interweaving two grandmasters’ competition in the arena, over a lady, and among the ideological roadblocks of Cold War politics. Truthfully, Gilbert and Sullivan Chess is not. The undeniable success of this production says more about EUSOG’s commitment to sampling work pas a la D’Oyly Carte than it does about Andersson & Ulvaeus’ capacity for profound historical commentary post-1815.

We enter to find the orchestra have escaped from their pit, and are lording it above the action. Production Manager Tom Turner has crammed more steeldeck into the set than went into South Park’s Ladder to Heaven. Visually the effect is elegant, the band’s movements in stylish harmony with Sam Burkett’s clever choreography. However x4 keys, drums, bass guitar, x3 violins, x2 cellos, flute, x2 clarinet, x3 trumpets, trombone, bassoon, oboe, french horn as well as percussion will tend to make a fair bit of noise and some dampening field needed to be generated for the sake of the singers down below.

Douglas Clark shone as Anatoly, making the script & song his own so as to cover the extensive narrative arc laid out for him. Without Clark’s poise on which to pivot, the story might have given up and defected to the bar. Tadgh Cullen (as Freddie) nailed Fischer’s astonishing angst. It was easy to see why Lydia Carrington (as Florence, the lady interest) would love him, and even easier to see why she left. I thought having Cullen sing his big number an octave higher than his vocal range was a brilliant piece of 4th wall smashing artistry, subtly underlining Freddie’s inner turmoil. My companion, smarter than your average bear, though it was a Boo-Boo. Cullen’s commitment held out. Our cheering was long, loud and genuine.

Giselle Yonace (as the tournament arbiter), Caroline Hickling (as Anatoly’s Russian wife), Peter Green (as the US manager), and Steven Segaud (as the mendacious USSR fixer) found the space to establish bold performances, spotlighting and supporting the main cast’s quirks and qualities. When Segaud tapped the vein of comic villainy in his character, I wasn’t the only one LMAO.

Ethan Baird’s direction emphasised the characters and the story they had to tell. But rather like flat pack furniture after the third house move, Chess is starting to show both its age and essential flimsiness. The producers are a bit young (and far too stylish) to embrace an ‘80s nostalgic short hand, but would one double-breasted suit have killed them? Would a visual of tactical nuclear warheads rolling through Red Square been so amiss? Several pieces were missing from this puzzling-out of a not so retro script.

If a musical about chess, written by the blokes from ABBA, set in the Evil Empire’s dreary dying days isn’t enough to float your Typhoon-Class, then here’s the only reason you’ll ever need to get out and kill, maim or mutilate whatever man or beast stands between you and the front row seats: Lydia Carrington.

She’s amazing. Her gorgeous voice battles down the band like Eva Green casually knocking down Greeks in the latest 300 movie. Carrington’s give and take with the male leads is as beguiling as Keira Knightley, as sexy as Elisha Cuthbert, and as anticipateringly exciting as when Elizabeth Warren made a cameo opposite John Goodman in Alpha House.

If you don’t see Carrington now, you’ll only have to pretend you did later. Unlike my VHS of Learn Chess with Nigel Short (ft. Carol Vorderman) this is one to watch.



Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 19 November)

Visit EUSOG here

Visit our Pleasance, Potterrow & Teviot archive.