Chess, London Coliseum | Review


Chess
London Coliseum
Reviewed on Tuesday 1st May 2018 by Olivia Mitchell 
★★★

Benny and Björn’s musical Chess is somewhat of a hidden gem in my mind. There are a number of ‘famous’ songs but other than that the show flies fairly under the radar in the grand scheme of musical theatre. Since seeing the 2008 concert version at the Albert Hall, I have been somewhat obsessively championing this musical so was thrilled to hear it was returning to the West End in the glorious London Coliseum. 

The production values of this show are outstanding. Matt Kinley's set design is minimalistic but striking, with simple set movements creating a whole change in mood and atmosphere. Patrick Woodroffe's lighting is suitably 80s-music-video-chic and Terry Scruby's video design and use of screens either side of the stage adds a unique element as well as a way for those further back in the massive Coliseum to feel a part of the action. However, the screens at times do feel overwhelming  and draw away from the drama rather than highlighting it. All technical aspects of the show work wonderfully though and tie the story and music together to create a cohesive mood. It's the cast which unfortunately lets the show down.

Michael Ball as the Russian, Anatoly, is vocally great but it feels as though he's coasting through and just singing the music note by note rather than bringing out the passion within it. Act 2 is certainly more convincing but there's a lack of compassion with the character and overall his performance is unfortunately underwhelming. 


Tim Howar growls his way through the show and at times is overly aggressive, even for the character. But his rendition of Pity the Child #2 is absolutely, breathtakingly brilliant and worth the ticket price alone. Cedric Neal as The Arbiter is shamefully underused as his smooth, riff-filled vocals are a highlight of the show. He's a sleek, expressive performer who deserves more stage time.

On the female side, the two leads work well together in their duet of I Know Him So Well and their love/resentment towards Anatoly is well acted but one is clearly better than the other. Alexandra Burke is strong at times but her varying accent and tendency to sing the songs as though she's performing in a pop concert take away from the heart-breaking story of Svetlana. Someone Else's Story falls flat for me but He is a Man, He is a Child was a look into what an emotive role this could be. I look forward to hopefully visiting the show again to see how Alexandra settles into the role and makes it her own. 

Cassidy Janson delivers a touching performance, especially during the finale and really works with what she's been given. Some moments seem as though Cassidy is toning down her vocals to fit with others which is a shame, but again something which will hopefully be remedied in future performances.

The ensemble are a tight knit, well-oiled machine who do a wonderful job of transporting us to various locations and do justice to the fantastically diverse score which includes operatic, rock, musical theatre styles and more. 


Despite the star names attached with Chess, it's really the music that steals the show. Benny and Björn's virtuosic score soars and stoops in the most stunning, moving way. The outstanding orchestra are faultless- you’d be hard pressed to hear the music played better than by the glorious musicians in the vast space of the Coliseum. 

There have been a number of cuts and changes to the show, most of which are welcome, however I particularly missed Commie Newspapers which sets up the political conflict between Anatoly and Freddie and provides a clear plot line for those unfamiliar with the show to follow. The character of Walter DeCourcey of Global Television is also noticeably absent which leads to the final confrontation between him and Florence never happening. The dialogue between the two where it’s revealed Florence’s father may not be alive after all and she decides she’s done with Chess, and games in life is particularly moving and just proves that truly Nobody is on Nobody’s Side. It’s a shame to see this cut and for me the new ending falls short. 

Some of the lyric changes also feel a little unnecessary. The change from “haven’t you noticed we are a protagonist short?” to “haven’t you noticed we are a lead short?” for example seems as though those adapting felt the audiences would be too silly to understand the original text. Of course this is a small thing and those unfamiliar with the show wouldn't even notice but as a fan of Chess, it feels like there have been needless changes just for the sake of it. 

Despite this review being somewhat negative, I genuinely did enjoy Chess. Perhaps it's because the first and only other production I've seen was of such a high standard that this current reincarnation falls flat. If you've never seen Chess before then I think you'll love it. I urge you to see the show regardless of its faults as it's got a beautiful score and a moving story that you can't help but fall in love with. 

Chess runs at the London Coliseum until June 2nd.

photo credit: Brinkhoff Mögenberg

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