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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Coliseum  Spring 2018

The 1986 collaboration between Tim Rice and the guys from ABBA is an epic pop opera in the mould of Evita or Phantom, as much the occasion for grand spectacle as music and drama. It is not the greatest of the genre, but it is pretty good, and this new revival does it full justice. 

The story is set in the midst of the Cold War, when everything from the space race to a chess championship was treated as a major confrontation of East and West, as if one man's skill at moving pieces across a board was evidence of a superior political-economic system. 

The musical begins with a Russian champion defeating an American, and then defecting to the West, so that a year later he represents the 'good guys' against another Russian challenger. Meanwhile love affairs and political and personal manipulation complicate things sufficiently to make the drama personal as well as geopolitical. 

This is the kind of musical that people came into already humming the songs because, like several others of the period, it began as a concept album, a couple of its songs becoming hits even before the show opened. And even today recognition and anticipation lead audiences to applaud the opening notes of One Night In Bangkok and I Know Him So Well. 

That is not to suggest that the songs don't deserve applause. Those two, along with Nobody's Side, Pity The Child and others, are first-rate theatre songs, even if a lot of what goes on between them is just filler. 

Certainly the four major performances could not be topped. Michael Ball, who has gone from strength to strength in the past decade, brings not only a rich full voice to the defecting Russian, but the dramatic power and gravity to make his character the moral centre of the play. 

The two female stars, Cassidy Johnson as his American love interest and Alexandra Burke as the Russian wife he left behind, complement each other in vocal styles, Johnson injecting a slight country-music tone that signals limited emotional expectations and a familiarity with pain while Burke goes for deeper soul-shaking passion. Their duet to I Know Him So Well is rightly a show-stopper. 

Tim Howar so successfully captures the life-enjoying shallowness of the American player that the large-scale production number made out of One Night In Bangkok doesn't drown him out. But as a result his obligatory solo expressing his secret pain doesn't quite work, despite all the emotion he pours into it. 

The English National Opera chorus, playing Everyone Else, make pretty sounds with their mouths, but as is too often the case with opera singers attempting pop music, their diction is muddied and they might as well be singing in Uzbek. 

In contrast, Stephen Mear's inventive and witty choreography is one of the best things in this production, and the dancing chorus repeatedly fill the stage with energetic, colourful and exciting movement. 

But I did mention spectacle. In the 1986 production the stage was ringed with TV monitors which were used to hint at things going on in the world outside. Here set designer Matt Kinley and video designer Terry Scruby dominate the stage with several large screens on which are projected everything from live close-ups of the singers, through montages of Cold War imagery, to CGI-generated background scenery. 

The close-ups in particular create a fascinating (and very appropriate to the musical's themes) effect, as we see the real live people onstage repeatedly being dwarfed by their giant on-screen images. 

Nominally a limited-run production of the English National Opera, the show has West End co-producers and is obviously aiming for a West End transfer. On the slim chance that it doesn't make it, you'll want to see it at the Coliseum.

Gerald Berkowitz

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