It’s the late 1980s, Cold War tensions are running high, and chess grandmasters “The American” in all-white and “The Russian” in all-black are meeting head-to-head across a chessboard. Two proud, bright flags adorn either side of the stage, the Stars and Stripes and Hammer and Sickle, facing off across the checkered monochrome between them. If anyone has the power to make chess as dramatic, vivid, and downright camp as this, it’s Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson of ABBA. In William Law’s new production of their musical Chess, St John’s hosts a performance that might lack subtlety, but would more than make up for it with soul – were it not for a few technical quibbles.
The musical they had to work with is, without doubt, a corker. The plot centres on the two hotshot chess whizzes fighting over Florence Vassy, the woman who manages one (Freddie Trumper, the arrogant, fame-and-fortune seeking chess superstar) and falls in love with the other (Anatoly Sergievsky, the troubled husband and father who despises the tournament’s politics and propaganda). Political subtlety and nuance are as present as they are important – which is not at all. One of the most thoroughly enjoyable sequences had Russian manager (and KGB agent, of course) Alexander Molokov (Will Todman) leading his red-tied entourage in a vodka-fuelled patriotic polka. Lines like: “We can feel the flame of triumph burning, our people’s pride returning, the Soviet machine advances.”, accompanied by Socialist-Realism style fist-pumping, are much more fun than serious politics.
What is taken very seriously is the music, with Bethany Nixon giving a stellar performance as Florence. Confident, energetic, and with a voice that sounds professional, she is the centre of gravity of every scene she appears in, be it tear- jerking solo or quickfire, witty duet. Unfortunately, Silas Eliot as Freddie and Samuel Horsley as Anatoly have trouble keeping up. Both give decent acting turns, with Eliot’s floppy-haired, petulant Russophobic rockstar serving as the perfect foil to Horsley’s tall, dark, and enigmatic Slav. However, they both slip up vocally, straining to nail the high notes – and even when they do, they’re too often drowned out by the (admittedly excellent) band.
Ultimately, though, these niggles are relatively insignificant. Even if it’s not technical perfection, it’s still a cracking story set to great songs. When Freddie observes that the chess fans “just want to see if the nice guy beats the bum”, he could just as well have been referring to the audience of Chess.