Review: Chess, Union ✭✭✭✭✭

It’s difficult to review when lost for words. The Union Theatre has a reputation, second to none, for hosting reincarnations of little-known, under-performed musicals, albeit with the frequent accompaniment of rumbling trains over-head. It was going to be a challenge to top 2012’s explosive Steel Pier, powerfully staged on the traverse, but this superb production of Chess, directed by Christopher Howell and Steven Harris  (they do say two heads are better than one), has done just that, and consequently another musical has been resuscitated within the four, drafty walls of the Union.

As a refreshing example of how intelligence and artistic integrity can prevail over gimmicks and budgets, this production will be heralded and remembered, not for its celebrity leads or its all singing, all dancing set, but for its quality. Simple staging blocks, used to create levels, are re-positioned by the performers as smoothly as chess pieces, evoking both a literal and metaphorical game. Basic, representational costumes, clearly delivered lyrics and our own imaginations are more than sufficient to transform the small, black-box space into Budapest, Merano and Bangkok accordingly. With seating positioned on three sides of the auditorium, audience members feel like flies on the wall, peering from behind the venue’s columns, witnessing the proceedings described and overseen by the domineering Arbiter, played effortlessly by Craig Rhys Barlow. The often cloudy, confusing narrative unravels uncontrollably and the audience, dauntingly close, piece together the plot, salvaging what they can from a world that is far from black and white. Interestingly, the role played by the increasingly intrusive media within politics has particular pertinence for a 2013 audience; could the voyeuristic effect be further intensified if the audience sat on all four sides of the square?

rarely do you see a cast – fringe, West End or otherwise -this consistently strong

The problematic Chess has had very few revivals and varying degrees of success since its three-year, West End run during the 80’s. Whilst this is a 5 star production, the musical itself is worthy of 3 or 4 at the most. Chess has a hauntingly beautiful, well-known score that fuses patriotic military anthems with memorable, romantic ballads. But, it also has an over-ambitious book. Tim Rice’s epic, Cold War context makes for reduced characters who are difficult to like and romances that are hard to fathom. However, this production embraces the weaknesses. Benefiting from NOT being in the West End (sorry actors), the close proximity of the cast to the audience and the simplicity of the design draws out nuances from within the piece that were previously diluted or over-shadowed. We don’t need to like the characters anymore; we just feel the impact of the hit.

Speaking of actors, rarely do you see a cast – fringe, West End or otherwise – this consistently strong; everyone is worthy of a mention. Rock-opera is vocally demanding and the ensemble rise to the challenge making the hairs on your arms stand up with their full, resonant sound. The exchanges between Nadim Naaman and Sarah Galbraith, playing unlikely lovers Anatoly Sergievsky and Florence Vassy, are particularly beautiful – his voice smooth and chocolaty (enough to make any woman weak at the knees) and hers, incredibly powerful, gliding over the difficult score with ease. Natasha J. Barnes plays a suitably dejected and scorned Svetlana Sergievskaya, bringing an element of warmth and enduring love into the severe, ruthless world of battle. Her distinguished characterisation makes the over-done, I Know Him So Well, painfully fresh.

This production reverberates as one that has ‘changed the game,’ raising the bar for London’s fringe.

*****(5 stars)
Runs until 16th March
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