Theatre Review: Chess @ Union Theatre

Chess, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderrson’s 1980s musical, is a story about the board game, love and the Cold War. Capturing ideological tensions through a world chess championship in 1979 between an American and Russian, it reveals how the Cold War also destroyed individuals’ lives by affecting personal relationships.

When the American (world champion at the start) loses to the Russian after his own successes and insecurities destroy him, the Russian promptly ‘steals’ the American’s female chief delegate and defects to the West. He then finds that he can only retain his crown by devoting himself entirely to the game, and disregarding everything around him including wife, lover and Soviet pressure.

Despite enjoying three years on the West End and a considerable cult following still, Chess was never the most major of hits, its undoubted intelligence walking hand in hand with a slightly unwieldy plotline. Over the years it has undergone numerous incarnations, and the Union Theatre has now been granted special permission by lyricist Tim Rice to perform the story as it was presented in a concert performance at the Royal Albert Hall in 2008.

Rice clearly knew what he was doing. The Union Theatre has an excellent track record in delivering innovative and quality theatre, and a knack for playing its small, intimate venue to its advantage. On this occasion, it has created the most powerful of experiences as the audience sit inches from the performers around three sides of a chess square. From here they find themselves blown away by such ensemble pieces as The Deal (No Deal) and completely sucked into the emotions of more private numbers like Mountain Duet.

From among the strong cast the performances of Nadim Naaman as the Russian and Sarah Galbraith as (initially) the American’s second, Florence, stand out. Naaman’s pleasing voice complements an intelligent, thinking stage disposition, while Galbraith puts in a truly sensational vocal performance.

Although very nearly there, some tweaking is still probably required if Chess is to grace a West End stage once more (and we hope that it does). The audience requires signposting through the plot, but the television commentaries that provide the explanations feel too deliberate, despite being delivered well by Natalie McQueen. Similarly, to reduce the show’s length, the brutal act of eliminating some songs is preferable to cutting numbers such as Merano slightly short, which affects the lucidity in the pacing. None of these problems, however, will confront you at the Union Theatre where tickets are going fast, and you are strongly advised to ring immediately if you want the chance to experience this superb show at such a reasonable price.

Until 16 March 2013 at the Union Theatre, 204 Union Street, SE1 0EX. Tickets (£18 / £16): 0207 261 9876 or click here.  

Londonist received a complimentary ticket from the Union Theatre.

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