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Review / Chess at the London Coliseum

Does Alexandra Burke fill Elaine Paige and Barbara Dickson shoes?

By Steve Brown

Composed by ABBA’s Björn and Benny with lyrics by Tim Rice and originally released as a concept album in 1984, Chess is masterful in its melding of classical-style pieces with pop tunes and huge ballads.

The problems start when it comes to dramatising it and they are problems this flashy new production at the London Coliseum doesn’t always manage to overcome.

The biggest issue with the show – which premiered at the Prince Edward Theatre in 1986, has been done on Broadway and in various tours and concert versions around the world but has taken 32 years to make it back to the West End – is the plot.

The love triangle that develops between wet-fish Russian chess master Anatoly (Michael Ball), his brash American opponent Freddie (Tim Howar) and Freddie’s quick-tempered assistant Florence (Cassidy Janson) is about as enthralling to watch as the game itself.

Set firmly in the 1980s, the show also has some problematic racial stereotypes (toffy-nosed Brits, Bangkok ladyboys) and a really messy narrative structure, both of which the production seeks to gloss over by bamboozling the eye with busy choreography and projections on screens which, very cleverly actually, surround the stage like pieces of a broken chess board.

The visual razzle-dazzle means the show is seldom boring, except when it comes to a couple of chess games that are as riveting as watching paint dry, and director Laurence Connor plays up the lighter aspects of the score in what by all accounts is a less po-faced staging than previous ones.

It’s the music that really thrills, though, and hearing it performed live by the English National Opera’s orchestra and chorus and such skilled singers as Michael Ball and Cassidy Jenson is a happy trade-off for any shortcomings in the storytelling.

They belt the roof off the place, as indeed does Alexandra Burke as Anatoly’s long-suffering wife Svetlana and her duet with Jenson on the legendary I Know Him So Well is every bit as good as the Elaine Paige/Barbara Dickson original.

Tim Howar does a bit too much shouting when he sings, but then he is playing a loudmouthed American and he has a lot of fun with One Night In Bangkok. When the music’s this catchy and the visuals so splashy, who cares that Chess is still a puzzle to be properly solved.

Rating: 3/5

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Words by Simon Button