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Chess the Musical Review

On Saturday May 19th 2018 the day Prince Harry married Meghan Markle; I saw an ENO production of Chess and witnessed a very different, intriguing kind of love story portrayed on the London Coliseum stage. Four people caught up in a maelstrom of emotion bound together and/or torn apart by the demands of East/West political neuroses and the game of chess. The performance was spell-binding, thought provoking and a joy to watch and I felt privileged to be in the audience.

In the first act Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Michael Ball) travels to Merano Italy for the World Chess Federation Championship, where he is to face American champion Frederick Trumper (Tim Howar).  The differing nature of both men’s countries was brilliantly portrayed at the opening ceremony, contrasting between the regimented goose stepping military display from the Russian delegation, to the freedom loving, casual, and commercialised pom-pom wielding cheerleaders of the US. As the battle commenced between the chess players the East/West backdrop of history was cleverly depicted through video montage, chronicling the political statesmen behind the scenes who shaped their countries foreign policy from the beginnings of the Cold War. Successive historical events appeared in the narrative (Sputnik, Cuba Missile Crisis, Man on the Moon, Afghanistan invasion by Russia) and thus the chess showdown progressed between Anatoly and Freddie. The American eventually conceded victory to his Russian counterpart, and then promptly announced his retirement from the game. Both men had strained relations with their seconds (US-Florence, Russia-Molokov), and I don’t doubt this played a factor in Sergievsky defecting and seeking asylum in the West, after his victory was secured. Florence (Cassidy Janson) disgusted at Trumper’s manipulative & violent behaviour runs from her American lover, into the compassionate arms of the Russian and helps him negotiate the trials of Western burocracy.

Back in Moscow Svetlana Sergievsky (Alexandra Burke) hears of her husband’s defection plan through a TV news report. Her lament “Someone Else’s Story” was heartbreaking and Burke’s emotive performance truly expressed a woman subsumed by events beyond her control or understanding. Meanwhile back in the West, the eccentricities of the British foreign office/civil service were amusingly depicted by a scene where dark suited men in bowler hats and wielding brollies, sang and danced a number called “Embassy Lament”. This was reminiscent of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance Policeman’s Song. Video montages of documents with endless words, several heavily underlined, all stamped “pending” “not approved” formed the backdrop (nothing has changed there). A press conference is held to announce the Russian’s defection and when challenged Anatoly silences his critics with the thunderous “Anthem” which brought the first half to a climatic finish. Michael Ball’s rendition was sensational and the hairs on the back of my neck were standing on end.

When the second act begins a year has passed, Anatoly and Florence are lovers and the World Federation Chess Championship is due to commence in Bangkok Thailand. Molokov has trained a new chess protégé Leonid Viigand to challenge Sergievsky the reigning champion. He has also persuaded Svetlana to travel to Bangkok with her son to confront her estranged husband. Freddie now a TV commentator experiences the delights of “One Night in Bangkok” and discovers from Molokov that Florence’s father long believed dead (at the hands of the Soviets) is alive, but has suffered for decades imprisonment in Russia. Molokov (Phillip Browne) hopes this news, and Svetlana’s arrival in the Orient will be enough to blackmail Anatoly into throwing the game, even though he seems supremely confident in his young protégé when singing “The Soviet Machine”. There were some very deep resonant notes in this song which hinted at a brooding menace, and Browne carried them off superbly. This scene struck me as being very similar in style to one in Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye agrees to his daughter marrying the butcher. The men drink a toast to the arrangement (which falls through) and Russians in the bar drink and dance in merriment of the occasion. Nothing works out quite the way it was supposed to in Fiddler, and I suspected the same was going to happen here.

Freddie interviews Anatoly for his TV network, but throws him off guard by announcing that Svetlana is to join them. Anatoly storms off to join Florence off-camera where a heated confrontation occurs, with the Russian emphatically stating “NOTHING must get in the way of my winning the game. I will deal with this other stuff later”. Charming I thought as Anatoly stomped off like a spoiled child, leaving Florence alone to face witnessing Freddie interview Svetlana. The sheer brilliance of the staging for “I Know Him So Well” was breathtaking, as both Cassidy Janson & Alexandra Burke performed this heart rending duet. The video montage juxtaposed both their images together, two women expressing very individual interpretations of their love for the same man, fused together like one heart beating, yet separate entities sharing the same confusion, hope and despair. I was mesmerised by these two extraordinary women, felt oddly empowered, yet was desperately fighting back the tears as well. AMAZING and quite rightly the song received rapturous applause for a couple of minutes afterwards.

Svetlana (under Molokov’s influence) implores her estranged husband to lose the chess match for the sake of their son; life would be made difficult if he didn’t comply. Freddie (colluding with Molokov) tells Florence her father is alive and will be freed from prison if Anatoly forfeits the game. But neither Florence nor Anatoly agree to any match fixing and Freddie is left alone with his thoughts. An apparent mental breakdown seems to occur in Trumper through the utterly devastating “Pity the Child”, which was met by thunderous applause. The tears of Tim Howar seemed totally real as the actor immersed himself into his character’s troubled childhood, and effectively expressed Freddie Trumper’s love of chess as the saviour of his soul. After this redemptive moment Freddie leaves Sergievsky with some tips on how to beat Leonid Viigand, having spotted a weakness in his game.

As the tournament begins there is almost an Ode to Chess as previous world champions’ names are honoured. Tightly fought matches occur between Anatoly and Leonid and with the score at 5-5, a wonderful four way harmony “Endgame” sung by Freddie, Florence, Svetlana and Molokov heralds the decider where Anatoly gets checkmate. He retains his world title and dignity, maintains the honour of the game, but relinquishes his love for Florence and his political asylum. Sergievsky decides to return to his motherland having made an agreement with Molokov, that in return Florence’s father will be released from prison in Russia. Anatoly realises he’s a pawn in a far bigger game, but sacrifices himself in order for Florence to be reunited with her father. Throughout the story this deep rooted issue has haunted her, but now she can gain peace by the Russian’s grand expression of total love. The final scene finds Anatoly & Florence sadly acknowledge their time together is at an end as they sing “You and I”. What an incredible love story portrayed in such an innovative way.

The casting was superb, the singing and orchestration sublime and the setting in London’s Coliseum stunning. And I particularly appreciated the video graphics at either side of the stage, which enabled the audience to see the main characters up close. This was a revelation, particularly seeing the illuminating facial expressions of Alexandra Burke which gave her solos a whole new meaning. But the over-riding feeling I had as the show ended was just how brilliant the music was. I only knew two songs in the production “One Night in Bangkok” and “I Know Him So Well, although I wasn’t fully aware of their context in the storyline. Everything else was totally new to me, and I marvelled at the sheer genius of Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice, although Rice really worked on the lyrics side, which in themselves are clever and poignant.

During the chess competition between Trumper and Sergievsky the music sounded so distinctly Russian in style, you would have thought it came from a composer like Borodin. Yet the Merano bar entertainment sounded like original European alpine music, the foreign office British interlude was perfect, whilst the soundscape of Bangkok seemed so authentic you would swear it emerged from the Orient. And the two main composers of this smorgasbord of music styles are Swedish! Being a huge ABBA fan I always knew how clever Benny and Bjorn are, but Chess exhibits their true genius beautifully. Of course Andersson and Ulvaeus background in the pop genre meant the razzmatazz of American popular music was easy to achieve. But I thought a perfect blend of Russian and American influences was cleverly created in the character of the chess judge Arbiter (Cedric Neal). The depth of some notes this actor had to achieve was phenomenal and rather like American Paul Robeson in style. Yet at other times a truly classical Russian delivery was evident to my ears, and the range of notes produced were positively operatic. Neal managed this difficult task with aplomb. And I couldn’t help but chuckle, as I thought his character came across as a Jay Leno TV larger than life persona, mixed with pure unadulterated Oprah Winfrey charisma. What a combination.


Bend It Like Beckham: The Musical

Bend It Like Beckham won the Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for Best Musical  in January 2016, just a few short days after announcing the production would finish at the Phoenix Theatre on March 5th. The world premiere took place on 15th May 2015 and I watched this joyous show last June and again this past weekend at the Phoenix. On each occasion my husband and I were both enthralled and elated by the wonderful combination of music and dance, which told the mixed tale of sport, culture and dreams. Somehow the production managed to infuse both eastern and western cultures together into a delightful and powerful show, that packed an emotional punch with an amusing under current.

The two football protégés are Jules an English girl from a one parent family and Jess Bhamra the youngest daughter of a Sikh family. Jess is obsessed with David Beckham whilst Jules admires Mia Hamm the US soccer star, and both have their sporting heroes adorning bedroom walls. Jules already plays for a local women’s team (the Harriers) and having spotted Jess’s potential invites her to a trial. They quickly form a formidable partnership on the pitch but Jess has to lie about having a part-time job to continue training, having incurred the wrath of her parents who forbade her to play any longer. So an opportunity for Jess to play in Germany sees her torn between trying to be a dutiful daughter and being true to herself. This is beautifully portrayed at the end of the first half in a dream like sequence. On one side Pinky tells her sister Jess she owes her parents to be dutiful because they have worked so hard, and an eastern dance/music element dominates. On the other side Tony a good friend of Jess tells her she has to take her chance, be herself and show what she can do, and here a western music/sport element prevails. Neither side come together but as Jess clearly makes up her mind to travel to Germany she dreams of playing with David Beckham.

In the first half both mothers are at a loss to understand their daughters and sing the same lament “Tough Love”. Each desperately wants the best for their offspring, yet the girls both feel totally misunderstood and angrily sulk in their room. I found myself annoyed with Mrs Bhamra because she was so entrenched in the traditional ways of her culture and how things were done, she found it virtually impossible to see beyond that and acknowledge that perhaps the world of opportunities for girls was changing in 2001. She and her husband want Jess to go to university but no doubt to make her a better prospect for a future husband, not to make their daughter feel more fulfilled. Jules Mum Paula on the other hand tries so hard to be supportive to her child but usually has the effort thrown back in her face. How I wanted to tell Jules how damned lucky she was to have that kind of unstinting support.

At the start of the second half the audience see that Jess and Jules are effectively two sides of the same coin. Jess sings of being told she is a dreamer because she looks beyond her culture and the traditional expectations of her parents. Jules sings of being told she is a loser for hoping to transcend her class and its limitations. Both travel to Germany and triumph in their game and whilst out celebrating Jess kisses the football coach Joe, not realising that Jules is madly in love with him. This results in a major argument between the girls in the airport back home, witnessed by Jules Mum waving an English flag to celebrate the team win. Believing she has seen a lover’s tiff Paula concludes her daughter Jules must be gay! Jess meanwhile having fallen out with her friend must now go back to her parents, return to being a dutiful daughter helping with her sister’s wedding arrangements, and face the prospect of never playing football again. The mournful traditional wedding song heralds a daughter leaving her old family life to start a new one with her husband. This hauntingly beautiful music is reflected in Jess sadly sitting in her bedroom rolling up her football posters and bagging them for the bin. It looks like something has died in her too. The following day is Pinky Bhamra’s wedding day and also the day of a football final for the Harriers team. An American scout is to be there to watch Jules and Jess play, however Jess is at the temple for the wedding ceremony and looks thoroughly miserable in the process. There is a smashing moment here when Jess sings about her love of the game but her duty to her family is more important. Then Jules sings of missing her friend, Joe about his love for Jess and her amazing football talent, and Tony encourages his friend to slip away from the celebrations to play the second half of the football final. This quartet piece is very striking in its heartfelt interwoven emotion. When the main wedding ceremony is over Mr Bhamra agrees to allow Jess to play in the match if it would make her smile. She dashes off to make the game arriving just after the audience see a funny scene between Jules and her Mum. Paula dressed in an outfit for Ascot turns up to support her girl, lets it be known she’s aware of Jules “preferences” after all there is “a cup for every saucer” and waves a gay flag with pride. Mortified Jules laughingly reassures her Mum that she has only had eyes for Joe not Jess, but finally realises just how much her Mum does care about and love her.

As the wedding celebrations continue we see the football team get ready and warm up for their game. The football clearly represents the western street music culture whilst the wedding depicts the eastern traditional culture. But unlike in the first half where the torment of Jess meant they kept apart in this half a seamless fusion occurs. Both sides merge into one harmonious unified body of movement and it is wondrous to witness. Having her father’s blessing to play the game makes Jess whole again and this symbolically represents that epiphany.

The team from Southall win the final thanks to an effort from Jess and both girls are offered a football scholarship to attend college and play in the US for a year. It looks like the Bhamra’s won’t allow Jess to go citing the prejudice they faced when they first arrived in England. But Jess retorted that was their road, but things can be better if you work for change and her appeal to them is heard. She will be travelling with Jules to the US and everyone gathers at the airport to see them off on their big adventure.

The music is infectious in this show as I witnessed in the London Tube station on Saturday night, when four separate groups of people along the platform were singing the same tune. I’d heard it on the escalators as well and walking along the street too. It is such an uplifting show you can’t help but smile and everyone was wearing a broad grin leaving the theatre. It is hoped the show will tour around the UK and travel to India. As the ultimate mood enhancer I recommend Bend It Like Beckham a piece of theatrical magic.

Betty and Becks enjoyed the show. Image credit abmj70
Betty and Becks enjoyed the show. Image credit abmj70

The Snow Queen on Stage

This festive season (7th-23rd December) Wild Ivy Theatre are performing The Snow Queen at Above the Arts Great Newport Street London. I watched their delightful interpretation of this classic story by Hans Christian Andersen on Thursday 17th December and for 45 minutes was immersed in the simplest most embryonic form of theatrical story telling.

Above the Arts only opened in March 2015 and is a sixty seat auditorium on the first floor above the Arts Theatre. The venue is rather like a large living room where scenery can be placed around the space, with open benches for viewers situated within the same area. This results in an immersive feeling where the audience can easily become an integral part of the performance. The constraints of a tradition theatre setting are removed, resulting in a much more free feeling experience. I couldn’t help thinking that it was a perfect way of introducing young children to theatre performance, by making it a less daunting prospect.

The four actors of the theatre group inhabited all the major characters with great aplomb. Gerda, Kai, Mother, Father, Maid, the Snow Queen, Reindeer, Raven and a fleeting show from the White Fox were all brought to life with a great energy and a lovely sense of fun. Every exaggerated body movement, facial expression and voice change brought storytelling to an elevated level. Stage props were minimal and just sufficient to give a setting context and the costumes simple, basic yet convincing. As there were only four actors and 45 minutes of action these facts helped guarantee a seamless transition between characters to progress the story. Sometimes less is definitely more and it also meant that the imagination of this big kid was fully engaged, for example I chuckled inwardly when the owl voice-overs came on as I envisaged Jane Horrocks (Little Voice) sitting wide eyed in a tree!

After the show I made a point of telling the actors how much I enjoyed their performance. They mentioned that some artistic licence was incorporated within their storyline, and I shall have to re-read the book to remind myself of the nuances of the tale. But the adaptation and setting it was performed in took me back to my five year old self marvelling at a picture book delivered by Santa. The innocence and wonder of an enchanting story that had my imagination fired on all cylinders as a child came flooding back forty years later watching the Wild Ivy Theatre. For that I thank them dearly.

There are three favourite stories I have always associated with Christmas. This production means I have now seen them all performed on stage. In 2013 I saw Hansel and Gretel performed by the Scottish Ballet in Glasgow. My love of this story I believe comes from seeing it as my first pantomime around 1977. The Alistair Sim black and white film A Christmas Carol has always kept Charles Dickens classic tale close to my heart, although I only read the book for the first time in Christmas week 2014! To my delight I watched a one-man show of A Christmas Carol performed by Simon Callow in the larger Arts Theatre in 2012. He was sensational making every expression; word and slight movement speak volumes. I thought at the time I was seeing a mature actor at the height of his powers give the ultimate theatrical master class. In a similar way Wild Ivy Theatre gave an acting master class in the purest storytelling form. The actors may be in the early part of their careers but if this is a glimpse of their potential I’m sure they will go far. Having seen many theatre shows in my time to think of Wild Ivy Theatre and Simon Callow in the same sentence is praise indeed from me. See a Wild Ivy Theatre production if you can it will be worth the effort.

The Snow Queen poster. Image credit abmj70
The Snow Queen poster. Image credit  abmj70

An Inspector Calls

On Thursday 16th October 2015 I went to the Regent Theatre in Hanley to watch a touring production of J B Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls. Alas by the end of it I was somewhat confused, a bit angry and didn’t really care very much about the crux of the story. There seemed to be so much socio/political subtext going on through the stage production, that (for me) the heart and essence of the text was lost!

I have never read J B Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls nor can I recall seeing the 1954 Alastair Sim film either. But I did see a stage production ten years ago and although the details are gone, I still remember the “wow what an ending to the story” feeling. Presumably the modern style of interpretation was there in my first viewing, but at the time I knew nothing at all about the context of An Inspector Calls. Armed with new knowledge and the memory of a superb traditional BBC TV adaptation from a few weeks ago, I looked forward to seeing the play with a fresh perspective. Sadly from the start all I could do was see “ticking boxes” to fulfil several bits of criteria deemed essential for the underlying sub-text.

It began with WWII air-raid sirens and a little boy listening to a radio, so I thought that the setting was going to be in the 1940s. When the curtain finally lifted and the house interior/occupants dress was revealed, it was obviously 1912 the year the play was set in. As the drama progressed and the WWII motifs remained I was utterly baffled, especially as the sirens, radio music and sounds of bombing at times drowned out the actors voices, as they did not use any means of amplification. Particularly bad was the dialogue at the beginning when the Birling party were inside their enclosed “Wendy house mansion on stilts”. I immediately thought they would have to open up the set for anyone to be able to hear properly. In my usual “cheap seat” at the back of the stalls, at times I’ve had to concentrate hard to follow a story, as the Regent does not have the best of acoustics. But with the actors having no amplification and the type of stage setting involved I must have lost about 20% of the dialogue.

So with different eras seemingly being juxtaposed together I couldn’t help but think “that shouldn’t be there” far too many times. The Birling’s interior telephone became an outdoor telephone box (I don’t think available in 1912), the dining room interrogation found itself on the hard urban streets of a bombed out city, the WWII radio had no place in a 1912 parlour. The manner of Inspector Goole reminded me of Jack Regan in “The Sweeney”, especially when he rolled up his shirt sleeves and threw his jacket into the gutter and shouted most of the time. Eric Birling the errant son running on with his shirt-tails hanging out and a bit wild eyed made me think of someone coming out of a night-club, not a man having had too much to drink at a home dinner party. And the violence shown between son/mother and father/son reminded me of episodes of “Dallas”! Obviously my mind wandered from the plot quite often, partly as a way of trying to comprehend what I was seeing but mainly because I felt totally disengaged from the story. When I get into a play I almost become part of it and really care deeply about the characters. But this time I just felt remote from the whole thing, perhaps because this modern adaptation was trying too hard to be all things to all people!

Much discussion took place with my husband Rob afterwards in the pub and the “era-mix” caused great confusion. From Google we discovered that Priestley wrote the play in 1945 but the story was set in April 1912, so it was a kind of vague though unsatisfactory explanation why both decades prevailed on stage. From the program there was a hinted suggestion that the rejection of Churchill in the polls after WWII could have been reflected in Priestley’s play. But I think that’s reading too much into that, but I could see that the class barriers that began to be questioned during the First World War were even more battered (though not dead) by the end of the Second World War.

I was far more interested to discover the play was set in APRIL of 1912 the same month as the Titanic disaster. The irony of that was not lost on me at all, the rich inhabiting the top decks having a better chance of survival than the poor on lower decks. And the gentry mantra of “women and children” must be on a life raft first, does not equate with pregnant Eva Smith/Daisy Renton being cast aside and effectively killed by the same upper class because no one threw her a life belt. It is also the era of the suffragette movement and Eva/Daisy initially fell on hard times through asking for a pay rise and going on strike. Her hard difficult struggle to make ends meet is a direct reflection of the harsh treatment by the authorities of women fighting for more equality. So when patriarch Arthur Birling complains vociferously at the harsh/less reverential questioning directed by the Inspector toward the Birling women, the irony and hypocrisy of the situation is all too evident.

The “Wendy house mansion on stilts” perfectly emphasised both the shaky ground the upper-class society was built upon in 1912 and visually separated the comfortable elite from the desperate majority. Inspector Goole’s line of questioning unravelled the fabric that kept the Birling facade intact and the First World War helped shake the foundations as well. When an onstage explosion literally brought the house down, I guess it was a metaphorical representation of an equalling in society. Both the mother and son at one point were lying in the gutter apparently broken by their deeds. Yet when it looks like no suicide has been made by Eva/Daisy, the audience saw Mrs Sybil Birling rising slowly then becoming more assured in her manner. The old-world order had not been upset after all, which was a call for celebration. Only the young Birlings’ Eric and Sheila seemed traumatised by the whole affair and felt any kind of remorse for their actions. They realised whether Eva/Daisy had committed suicide or not, all of them at the dinner party were culpable for their actions in bringing about her predicament. The ending of course finds Arthur Birling being informed that a death has now occurred and the police will be arriving to question them. Everything they had been told was a prediction of what would happen that night.

I discerned from my program a notion that only a modern innovative rendition of An Inspector Calls could bring the themes from the story into the present day. A traditional portrayal of the play could only make the Birling family seem like a relic from a bygone era, something from the history books. I disagree completely with this assumption having seen the recent BBC TV adaptation, which was excellent. It took place in a resplendent Georgian dining room with characters acting perfectly in dress, manner and behaviour of the times. The Inspector Goole of this version was quietly forceful with a beautifully measured manner and a pall of sadness about him. To me he was utterly believable, especially as he made me think of the narrator in the film The Book Thief, who was the voice of death like Goole himself. Being set properly in the context of 1912 magnifies the heart and soul of the play; it does not detract from it. The Titanic disaster, Suffragette movement, World War One and the ideals/wrongs of that time nourish and nurture the story. For me the traditional setting reinforced the themes from the play and I had tears in my eyes at the end of the TV drama. Alas I was a bit angry and rather cross having watched the stage production of An Inspector Calls. I’m sorry to say the themes that transcend the generations doesn’t work as a smorgasbord stage setting.

Theatre programme. Image credit abmj
Theatre programme. Image credit abmj