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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Chess
Union Theatre Spring 2013

The 1986 musical by Tim Rice and the guys from ABBA was best known even then for one hit song, 'I Know Him So Well', and maybe 'One Night In Bangkok'. As this attractive small-scale revival shows, there are a few other excellent songs in the score, a plot as clunky as it seemed the first time around, and the occasion for one really exciting performance. 

As the title might hint, the plot is about international chess championships in the days when the presence of Russian competitors gave everything politics-driven Cold War significance. An American champion loses to a Russian, who promptly defects, stealing the American's girlfriend in the process. 

A year later he faces a Russian challenger, and political and sexual pressure is applied to make him throw the match, re-defect, or both. 

One problem with the plot is that the central figure turns out to be the defecting Russian, although the play takes a long time to figure that out (seeming to be more interested in the American for the first half-hour), and then seems to keep forgetting it, wandering off to focus on the girlfriend, the political manipulators on both sides, and even the American again. 

The original London and Broadway productions both had the problem that the character who is supposed to be the centre of things can't seem to hold the centre, and this revival co-directed by Christopher Howell and Steven Harris doesn't fare very much better on that point. 

Despite the attractive presence and strong singing voice of Nadim Naaman, the Russian champion keeps drifting into the background, never allowing us to become involved in his experience. 

The strongest performance here – and, indeed, a star-making performance if there is any justice – comes from Sarah Galbraith as the switching-loyalties girlfriend. 

Not only does she get some of the best songs, making the most of the dramatic and musical power of 'Nobody's Side' and 'Heaven Help My Heart', but she has a magnetic stage presence that draws all eyes to her. (She may in fact be too strong, so completely outsinging the other actress that 'I Know Him So Well' becomes a solo with backing rather than the equal duet it's meant to be.) 

Tim Oxbrow has his moments as the defeated American, Craig Rhys Barlow as the cynical arbiter, and Gillian Kirkpatrick as the chief Soviet handler, but all of them, along with everyone else except Sarah Galbraith, share the problem of not always (or, in some cases, ever) managing to be audible in this 50-seat theatre. (Not the smallest part of Galbraith's star performance is that you can hear and understand every word she sings.) 

The co-directors make inventive use of the small stage, with occasional quite witty touches – 'One Night In Bangkok' is particularly clever – and do what they can to keep the meandering plot on course. 

Chess remains a flawed musical, but the reminder that it has more than the two songs everyone knows, and the star-is-born performance at its core, make this revival well worth a visit.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Chess - Union Theatre 2013  

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