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Theatre Review: Chess

6 July 18 words: Tanya Louise

A musical? With Abba music? Set in the 80's? Well, that sounds like a great idea for a raucous comedy...

A musical? With Abba music? Set in the 80's? Well, that sounds like a great idea for a raucous comedy...

In actual fact, it's far from it. Chess the Musical is not a light-hearted few hours of singalong. The story involves a politically driven, Cold War-era chess tournament between two men - an American grandmaster and a Soviet grandmaster - and their fight over a woman who manages one and falls in love with the other. Political game playing and the global divide between East and West probably weren't at the forefront of your mind when you read the first paragraph.

The People's Theatre Company take on the technically difficult production that is Chess The Musical.  I've never understood the game and unless you really concentrate it can be hard to understand the show too. There's not a huge amount of spoken dialogue, relying instead on the lyrics to move the story forward.

Those come courtesy of Tim Rice with music by ex-Abba stars Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. (Rice's usual partner in crime, Lloyd Webber, was unavailable due to working on a little show called Cats when work first began on the production in 1979) It often seems like there are too many lyrics to fit the music and the same melody is used at various points of the show, similarly to another Rice/Webber composition, Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, but the cast of The People's Theatre Company handle it admirably.

The musical has been referred to as a metaphor for the whole Cold War, with the insinuation being that the Cold War is itself a manipulative game.  Chess addressed and satirised the hostility of the international political atmosphere of the 1980's, using an international chess tournament as the setting - and analogy - for the politics of both the world and love, as American, Frederick Trumper (Sam Barton) and Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Rob Goll), compete against each other in a love triangle as well as over the chess board.  The Nottingham Arts Theatre is a beautiful old building and the cast certainly live up to the professional setting. Sure, there's the odd dud note and the choreography may be slightly out of time in parts but this is only noticeable because the rest of the production, directed by Meng Khaw, is so spot-on you forget it is actually amateur. 

The show moves along at a fast-pace and if you can't always follow the story, there's some cracking music. You'll be surprised by the amount of famous numbers you actually know. Placed seventh in a BBC Radio 2 listener poll of the U.K's "Number One Essential Musicals", the productions highly successful concept album spawned many hits. If you've ever seen footage of an Abba concert then you'll know there's a sense of theatre about it and this formula is carried over into songs such as 'Anthem', 'One Night in Bancock' and, of course, 'I Know Him So Well'. Made famous by original cast members Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson, the number performed beautifully by Kate Taylor and Zosia Kucznska, deservedly rewarded with the loudest applause of the night and achieving goose pimples on an otherwise boiling hot night in Nottingham.

I had the pleasure of seeing Kate Taylor perform last year in an amateur production of My Fair Lady. She is an artist who should surely be performing professionally.

Other standout vocal performances came from Sam Barson as Frederick Trumper, Zosia Kuczynska as Svetlana Sergievskaya and John Gill as The Arbiter.

Chris Brawn's set design is simple. Large chess pieces stand to the side of the stage, pieces of a rubic cube are scattered around. A back screen with changing images and graphics highlights locations avoiding the need for large set changes. All of which work.

A spectacular show, making all the right moves in Nottingham this week.

Chess runs at Nottingham Arts Theatre until Saturday 7 July 2018.

Nottinagham Arts Theatre website

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