Review: Chess the Musical

National Theatre
CLOC Musical Theatre
Until 21 October

Subterfuge and skullduggery abound, with the Russians and the Allies at loggerheads during the Cold War in Chess: The Musical.

The maneuvering is intense, the stakes are high at the World Chess Championships.

With music by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA, and book and lyrics from Tim Rice, CLOC has put on a tremendous production.

Photos by Ben Fon

The story straddles two World Chess Championships, the first in Merano, Italy and the second in Bangkok, Thailand.

To say there is a lot of feeling in both is a gross understatement.

Before the first, Freddie Trumper (Aaron Taylor) from the US isn’t exactly a popular figure.

He is brash and not exactly embraced by the media. He arrives with his lover and offsider, Hungarian-born, British-raised Florence Vassy (Rosa McCarty).

His opposite number, challenger Anatoly Sergievsky (Mark Doran), has in his corner the scheming Alexander Molokov (Jake Turner-Clarkson).

Early in the tournament, Freddie orchestrates a stunt trying to extract more money from his sponsor, an American media company not afraid of controversy.

Freddie and Florence have words, before she tries to orchestrate a peace meeting between Freddie and Anatoly.

Florence’s affections turn Anatoly’s way.

Married (to Svetlana Sergievskaya – Rachel Rai) with children, that doesn’t stop him from defecting.

More shenanigans follow in the lead up to and during the subsequent World Championship a year later.

Chess: The Musical is powerful and provocative. It sets out to poke the bear.

Highlighted by three giant video screens, the creative and dynamic chess board set design by director Shaun Kingma is triumphant.

Multi-coloured floor lighting completes the picture. In fact, throughout, the lighting design by Brad Alcock (from BAAC Light) reflects the mood changes.

Sound design from Marcello Lo Ricco (from LSS Productions) brings menace, as musical director Tyson Legg generates strength and conviction from his players.

The chorus numbers are particularly rousing.

And now to the leads. Rosa McCarty is outstanding. Her rich, rounded vocals soar.

A duet with Rachel Rai in the second act is one of Chess’ many stand out moments.

Mark Doran, too, excels as the Russian chess champion, imposing himself on the production with his vocalisation.

Aaron Taylor brings swagger to his realisation of the American champion turned commentator.

The depth in tone of Jake Turner-Clarkson is something to behold, as is the menace in his portrayal of the Russian government operative.

Amelia Rope imposes herself from the get-go as the President of the International Chess Federation.

James O’Donovan is adept at breathing life into the self-serving Walter de Courcey, who is ever willing to sell his soul to the highest bidder.

Tamara Finch’s choreography sees the artistes navigating frequent set changes with ease.

My only concern was the fact that when individual performers were being live streamed, the lip syncing was consistently out on the screens. It was off-putting.

Still, notwithstanding that reservation, CLOC has excelled with a big production of Chess: The Musical, involving a 40-strong cast and an orchestra of 18.

On at The National Theatre until 21st October, 2023, it is one to savour, with no shortage of bite.

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Alex First

Alex First

Alex First believes all people have a story to tell, if only a good playwright can prize it out of them. Alex has a natural curiosity about the world and believes a strong narrative, or narrative with music, can open the door to subjects about which he knows little. Like his parents before him, theatre is his passion – a passion with emotional resonance, one that moves and excites him. He brings decades’ experience as an arts’ connoisseur to his role as a critic.
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