Chess at Mansfield Palace Theatre
Chess is a love story set towards the end of the Cold War which centres around the political exploits of the World Chess Championship, while exploring themes of media and political manipulation. Champion chess rivals Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky are the inspiration for the two main American and Russian chess playing protagonists in the musical. Their 1972 tournament was actually publicised as a Cold War confrontation and attracted more worldwide interest than any chess championship before or since. Although set thirty plus years ago Chess seems a topical choice with the current global situation, which is perhaps what Heanor Musical Theatre Company are insinuating with their use of modern technology throughout the production. This amateur production is directed by Paul Andrew Young, choregraphed by Cat Howourth and the musical direction is under the baton of Ben Ward.
Sadly, I find the story itself to be unfortunately longwinded and chaotic. Despite being written by Abba’s Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson with lyrics by Tim Rice, the 1986 musical doesn’t contain that many particularly memorable songs, perhaps with the exception of ‘One Night In Bangkok’, ‘Pity The Child’, ‘Anthem’ and ‘I Know Him So Well’. The opening numbers ‘Prologue/The Story of Chess’ and ‘Merano’ contain so many overlapping melodies and lyrics it’s initially tricky to get a grasp of the story, especially as the volume of the -very skilful – band drowns out the vocals at the start. However, you can’t fault the energy of the company, and once they find their balance, the ensemble numbers become a lot more something to latch on to and enjoy. The first act musically highlights the political machinations and merchandising of the game and introduces the male characters including the Arbiter played with great energy by Jack Readyhoof.
The second act becomes a lot more engaging when the principle cast are given their chance to shine properly. Both Sara Evans-Bolger as Florence Vassy and Alana Moran as Svetlana Sergievsky nail their solo numbers, bringing some depth to rather underwritten characters. They come together beautifully in a gorgeous rendition of the iconic ‘I Know Him So Well’. The scorned woman is a role both actors play well, managing to add distinct individuality to an easily stereotyped character with spirited performances that stay with you.
I’m sure I am not the first person to recognise that both male leads in Chess are remarkably unsympathetic characters. Saying that, Andy Quinn is a vocal powerhouse as chess champion Frederick Trumper and Kyle Fearn is a worthy vocal opponent as Anatoly Sergievsky. The deeply threatening Alexander Molokov is fantastically portrayed by Kheenan Jones as a Russian you do not want to mess with.
Using a large digital screen as a backdrop on the stage is a clever plan to produce much more intricate sets and add context to scenes that would otherwise be lacking. It is just a shame that the large scaffolding structure in front of that often obscures relevant details like locations thereby detracting from the backdrop’s usefulness.
As a story, Chess the musical is no Queen’s Gambit, but this tremendous cast contains enough talent to make this production a worthwhile visit.
Heanor Musical Theatre Company is performing until 9th April. To find out about ticket availability, you can go to www.mansfieldpalace.co.uk