"Each game of chess means there's one less variation left to be played," we are informed as the latest round of the World Chess Federation's world championships are played out, first in Merano, Italy, then in Bangkok, Thailand. But each new production of Chess - scored by ABBA's Benny Andeersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus to lyrics by Tim Rice - seems to have brought a fresh variation to be played since it originally premiered in the West End in 1986; and now, 32 years later, it is still being radically tinkered with; there's a new song, for instance, for Svetlana, the abandoned wife of defecting Russian chess player Anatoly Sergievsky called "He is a Man, He is a Child" that I've not heard previously.
And I speak as something of a Chess aficionado, who saw both the original West End production and its entirely re-worked Broadway premiere two years later, whose first preview famously ran for four and a half hours (Tim Rice tells a priceless anecdote of British lyricist Don Black leaving the show early, saying he wanted to see his children grow up).
Now it gets the ENO musicals treatment, in the slot previously occupied by Sweeney Todd, Sunset Boulevard and Carousel, and it may have never sounded orchestrally better, with the massed ranks of the ENO orchestra under the baton of John Rigby delivering its thrilling pop-based anthems, its rich, show-stopping power ballads and quirky novelty numbers with stunning élan.
It is also ideally cast with some of Britain's best musical theatre and pop cross-over voices, including Michael Ball (who has combined a career as one of London's leading men of musicals with a notable recording career), Tim Howar (a star of rock musicals like Rock of Ages but also lead singer with the band Mike + The Mechanics), Cassidy Janson (who played Carole King in the West End version of Beautiful, amongst other leading roles), Alexander Burke (X Factor winner in 2008, and since then star of the musicals The Bodyguard and Sister Act on tour) and Cedric Neal (recently the lead in Motown - the Musical in the West End)
That's some serious star power, and each have their own moment to shine: Ball's act one closing song "Anthem" is a thrilling tour-de-force, as is Howar's second act dazzler "Pity the Child", while Janson has her moment in the spotlight with "Nobody's Side" and Burke with "Someone Else's Story" (a song written for the 1988 Broadway premiere). There are also a couple of chart showstoppers in "One Night in Bangkok" (for Howar) and the duet "I Know Him So Well" (for Janson and Burke).
So the musical values of this production are top-notch, and if the production had left it at that, with its original 'semi-staged' billing, it might not have run the danger of crushing the dramatic life out of it. This has always been a problematic, unwieldy story to tell - its hardly a surprise that the programme carries an extensive synopsis, as if it is a complicated fully-fledged opera, combining cold war politics with personal relationship dramas that embraces other sorts of defections.
But with a set made up, inevitably, of variously floating chess squares, complemented by very busy video designs by Terry Scruby and live action video projections of the actors alongside it, it becomes a bit like an arena rock staging, designed to be seen by the people in the bleachers, that gives us plenty of close-ups but loses sight of the bigger picture.
This is also partly reminiscent of Bat out of Hell, another rock album turned into a musical last year at this address and recently transferred to the Dominion. It's difficult to concentrate with such a visual assault on our senses; it makes it feel portentous and silly at times. But the aural one is so enticing that it still more than rewards a visit. I know I'll be going back again.
Chess Tickets are available now.
Photo credit Brinkhoff-Moegenburg
What the popular press said...
"The mighty ENO orchestra under John Rigby does justice to their mix of swooning melodies, fragile ballads, explosive rock and bursts of comic opera."
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard (two stars)
"Michael Ball is great. Alexandra Burke is great. Cassidy Janson is terrific. The lesser-known Tim Howar (the current singer of Mike and the Mechanics for his sins) has a wonderfully versatile rock voice. The ENO Chorus is just peachy. If this was just a concert, it would be a good concert."
Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out (two stars)