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Chess: The Musical at Union Theatre

Alice Dickerson

An impressive revival of a long absent musical, but one which leaves you questioning why it was revived at all.

Don't switch off yet; the plot behind Chess: the musical is more engaging than might be originally presumed. Loosely based on the clash of the titans of chess, American Bobby Fischer and the Russian Boris Spassky, the creators of the musical sought to consider the Cold War through an alternative prism. Not only did they add song and dance to the game of chess, they also added liberal doses of sex, politics and violence. Getting the show off the ground – and attracting what might otherwise have been a sceptical audience – was made easier by the fact that the lyrics were composed by Tim Rice and the music was provided by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, formerly of ABBA.

Successful when it first launched in the UK in the late 1980s, Chess has not had a major revival in the UK since the 1990s. The Union Theatre has decided that it is time to dust off the script and score. And, on the face of it, it's hard to fault the quality of the Union's cast and production. 16 cast members sing and dance their heart out and they are all, with one or two notable exceptions, well trained and accomplished. The staging itself is visually satisfying, especially when one is aware that it was originally intended to be performed on a much larger, grander stage.

Revivals of Chess not only serve to remind us just how much global politics has changed in the intervening decades, but also how far the game of chess has fallen from the world stage. The clash between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky was truly a global event; it is difficult to imagine such a high-profile occasion occurring today. Yet, chess is a worthy subject for drama; the stakes are often high and much pressure is focused on the two players. Those who continue to recognise the game's dramatic potential include participants in a modern variation on the ancient game 'chessboxing', which involves alternating rounds of chess and boxing. And, according to informed sources, it remains true that the world of international chess is often stranger than fiction

The problem with Chess is not that chess is an unworthy subject for a musical. Musicals have been written about stranger subjects and achieved even greater commercial success. Step forward, for example, Cats. The issue instead is that, despite a handful of brilliant scenes, the overly dramatic plot overshadows the potential 'natural' drama. And, unfortunately, many of the songs rely upon terrible lyrics. The scene with the two tap-dancing civil servants is excellent but short, and only serves to show up the rest of the production for its lack of creativity.

One cannot help but feel that this revival of Chess suffers from limited relevance for today's audience. Chess the game holds much less of a place in our national consciousness. More critically, the musical itself has not stood the test of time. This is one for die-hard fans of the original, rather than a legion of new musical fans.

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