Theatre Royal Drury Lane may be home to Frozen but it’s going to be a hot summer there with a series of One Night in London concerts planned… The demand for which was so huge, additional dates were added to each. Over the next few weeks, concert productions of Kinky Boots and Treason will appear but the season has started with the return of an iconic musical as Chess makes its move there.
First appearing as a concept album in 1984, it debuted in the West End in 1986 and on Broadway in 1988. Since then it has been revived multiple times, most recently seen in London 4 years ago for a limited season at the Coliseum. A Marmite musical if ever that was one, Chess can get an unnecessarily hard time among theatre fans. I personally have only seen the show once before, in its last West End run, and have to be honest when I say it fell relatively flat for me. However, when the cast and creatives for this production were announced, I knew I had to be there – if anything was going to make Chess work, it was bound to be this. So was it good, was it fine or did I need a little bit more from it?
Led by a cast that you will definitely know so well, some of the West Ends finest have gathered to bring Chess to life. The always incredible Hadley Fraser is as sensational as you would expect as Anatoly, with his act one climax ‘Anthem’ completely jaw dropping (more on that in a bit). Joel Harper-Jackson has had a pretty good (and eventful) year with his last West End show, but how could he possibly beat Cock? It turns out he can top it with ease as he swaps Cock for Bangkok in a truly remarkable turn as Freddie. Joel has the kind of voice that can induce goosebumps all over, which he does time and time again in this production in what is a completely mesmerising turn.
Samantha Barks swaps her usual stomping ground of Theatre Royal Drury Lane for… actually, never mind. Whether this is your first time seeing Samantha perform in person or your hundredth, her incredible voice will never fail to take your breath away, and this is no exception, As Florence, she is an absolute revelation, giving a real emotive and captivating performance. Frances Mayli McCann follows her star-making turn in Bonnie & Clyde with another fantastic turn as , while she reunites with former cast member Ako Mitchell to bring life to The Arbiter.
The greatest element to Chess is undoubtedly its music. Helmed by ABBA legends Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus with lyrics by Tim Rice, it is full of songs that have transcended beyond the show to become a part of musical theatre culture. I felt my soul leave my body witnessing Samantha Barks and Frances Mayli McCann sing the seminal ‘I Know Him So Well’ but it was the solo numbers that really set the stage alight. Joel Harper-Jacksons ‘Pity The Child’ and Frances Mayli McCann’s ‘Someone Else’s Story’ were vocal masterclasses, while Samantha Barks excelled on ‘Heaven Help My Heart’ and delivered one of the most rousing performances I’ve ever witnessed with standout moment ‘Nobody’s Side’.
This series of concerts at Theatre Royal Drury Lane are performed with the London Musical Theatre Orchestra and the London Musical Theatre Chorus, creating what can only be described as the most beautiful sound you will ever hear on a West End stage. With glorious musical direction from Freddie Tapner, The music soars, never sounding better than it did on that stage last night, none more so than on Act One closing number ‘Anthem’ which the word “Perfection” was surely invented for. Hadleys vocals accompanied by the talented musicians on that stage was one of those moments that really signified why theatre is so powerful, and one that I will never forget.
Directed by Nick Winston, this is one of those “concerts” we have seen several times over the last year which is deceptive in its title as it has more staging than you would expect. Nick also choreographs in sequences that truly bring the stage to life. The sequences where actual chess matches are played are far more watchable thanks to the beautiful movement from the talented ensemble cast. While iconic number ‘One Night In Bangkok’ felt fairly underwhelming in comparison to where it should land, an unexpected highlight came from act 2 number ‘The Soviet Machine’ featuring some truly amazing choreography, leading to the most exciting number of the show visually.
The production in general is pretty impressive to watch. All traces of Arendelle have been hidden to reveal a gorgeous stage of two light up staircases, used to fabulous effect. Video design from Duncan McLean is used to fantastic effect, while the lighting from Ben Cracknell is among the greatest I have ever seen on a stage (The last time I said that was also Bens lighting) – absolutely beautiful to look at with a versatile and intense design that covers not just the stage but the audience too, it really was an incredible effect, with one highlight being the use of lighting in ‘One Night In Bangkok’.
Chess isn’t without its faults though and its biggest problem lies with the book. Slightly convoluted, it can feel nonsensical at times and hard to follow. A metaphor for the Cold War, it never quite packs the punch it thinks it’s packing. While the songs are great, the narrative overall means it feels harder to connect to the characters overall. Dare I say it may have worked better as a song cycle with an overarching theme rather than try to push a story through that never quite lands as it’s meant.
While this production of Chess fixes several issues with the show in general, it still has the original problems to work with which, short of completely rewriting the show, it is unable to fix. That said, they have not only made this watchable but also an absolutely feast for the senses. Truly inspired direction? Check. Some genius production choices? Check. A great cast at the top of their game? Check. Potentially the most beautiful sound you will hear on a West End stage this year? Checkmate. All of this leads to a pretty fantastic experience in the theatre Wasn’t it good? Yes, it was. Chess has never been performed so well. Potentially the best Chess has ever looked or sounded on the stage - if the other concert productions this month are even half as good as this, we're in for a treat.
Chess plays at Theatre Royal Drury Lane for 2 additional performances on August 2nd. Productions of Kinky Boots and Treason follow later this month. Tickets from https://lwtheatres.co.uk/
Photos by Mark Senior