Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Of all the big West End musicals, Chess is a bit of an anomaly. Based around an idea by lyricist Tim Rice, with music by Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson (who, let’s face it, know more than a thing or two about composing a catchy song), it was initially a concept album, before being adapted into this theatrical version. It’s a real ensemble piece that presents a considerable challenge to anybody reckless enough to mount a production. Luckily, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is more than up to the task and they thrill a packed audience at the Festival Theatre with a skilful display of all things theatrical that is breathtakingly good. Indeed, I have to keep reminding myself all the way through, that I’m watching the work of students here – albeit from one of the most famous theatre schools in the world – because this demonstrates degrees of professionalism that would rival many of the biggest names in theatre.
Inspired by the real life story of chess grandmasters Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, it’s the story of American chess player Freddie Trumper (Barney Wilkinson) and Russian player Anotoly Sergievsky (Jamie Pritchard) – and a rivalry that extends beyond the game, when Freddie’s long time muse, Florence Vassay (Daisy Ann Fletcher), becomes romantically entangled with Anotoly. Based around two world championships and presided over by The Arbiter (Emma Torrens) the stage is set for some human life subterfuge that mirrors the complexity of the central game.
It’s all masterfully done – the three lead actors sing brilliantly, there’s some incredibly complex and sophisticated choreography (often incorporating the real time use of video cameras, à la Katie Mitchell) and choral singing that sends chills down the spine. If there’s a criticism, it’s simply that during the first half of the show, the overall volume is occasionally a little too loud, but this is sorted by the second half, which features the show’s best known songs (including, of course, the sublime I Know Him So Well, with Daisy Ann Fletcher harmonising effortlessly with Hayley VerValin as Anatoly’s Russian wife Svetlana).
All-in-all, this is a fabulous show, and director Andrew Panton and choreographer Darragh O Leary can both take a well-deserved bow – and, to be honest, you won’t find a weak element in any department of this marvellous show. It all makes for a brilliant night at the theatre.