Mar 5 2022 | By More

★★★☆☆      Re-opening gambit

Brunton Theatre: Thurs 3 – Sat 5 March 2022
Review by Thom Dibdin

Musselburgh Amateur Musicals Association make a spirited return to live with a production of Chess at the Brunton which hits all the high and the low notes while making a solid fist of the tricky ones in between.

The production was almost ready to go ahead before the pandemic struck and, even though the company has been living with the show for two years more than it expected, this is a fresh and vigorous telling – thanks to Richard Tebbutt’s solid direction and driving support from the band in the pit, under MD David Gibson.

Paul Lyall and Craig McKirgan with Gordon Horne. Pic: Simon Wootton

The musical, by Tim Rice (Andrew Lloyd Webber’s regular collaborator) with music by Abba songwriters Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, is a parable of Cold War machinations: told through the confrontation between the chess masters, American Frederick Trumper and Soviet Anatoly Sergievsky, battling it out at the world chess championships.

It was written in the mid Eighties, before the break-up of the Soviet Union. Watching it on a rainy night when the news is full, once again, of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its bombardment of civilians in Kyiv, adds an extra layer to resonance. References to Sergievsky as “the Russian”, striking an unsubtly different note to the one they would have only a week before.

Such contemporary resonances are largely eclipsed by the production itself, however, in a musical which is pretty resilient to any further analysis.

technically challenging

The whole piece is overseen by Gordon Horne, as The Arbiter – referee of the chess games and an honest broker who is above the machinations of the chess board and the teams bringing the players to the table.

Horne has what is the least flashy – but vital – role in the whole technically challenging piece. He leads the introduction to the game of Chess itself, detailing its background in opener The Story of Chess. It demands both a decent voice – which Horne has – and very clear enunciation.

Alison Henry Pic: Simon Wootton

Unfortunately the whole of the first act on opening night did not have the clarity of delivery which this wordy piece demands. Tebbutt had got all the direction right – you knew where you were and the gist was always clear, with all the big songs and little cameos coming across well. But actual words – the nuances and puns about chess – were not comprehensible.

However, given that Act 2 was immeasurably clearer (without any noticeable change in volume), the indication is that the problem was somewhere on the technical side and no blame should lie with the performers themselves.

Craig McKirgan is a strong, arrogant Trumper (a name that has not aged well!), who brushes off his loss in the opening match and his girlfriend Florence Vassy (Alison Henry)’s subsequent transfer of her allegiances to the more attentive Sergievsky (Paul Lyall). Bouncing back with a lucrative TV commentator gig for the second match.

class performance

Lyall and Henry give more a human angle to Sergievsky and Vassy, finding some depth to a relationship which seems to ride above either chess or East-West politics. Monty Roy gives a class performance all round as Sergievsky’s estranged wife, Svetlana. She and Henry’s duet on the show’s big hit, I Know Him So Well, is suitably memorable.

Zorbey Turkalp Pic: Simon Wootton

The production declines to shine particular focus on either of the main strands of politics or romance, however. The spotlight falls instead on the ensemble, both in the scenes detailing the places the chess games are held and in Caroline Ingles’s straight-forward choreography during the matches themselves.

Zorbey Turkalp brings some of his considerable bass prowess to the role of Molotov, the Soviet political minder, while Alan Peterson has a strong presence as his American counterpart, De Courcey.

However, they are just the two named peripheral characters. There are some brilliant little cameos from those playing the various inhabitants of Merano and, particularly, Bangkok in the Act Two opener, One Night in Bangkok, where Sergievsky takes on the next Soviet master.

It all adds up to a production which has plenty to show off about – but which refuses to be flashy about it.

Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes
The Bruntonn, Ladywell Way, Musselburgh EH21 6AA.
Thursday 3 – Saturday 5 March 2022
Evenings: 7.30pm; Sat mat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details:  Book here.

The MAMA company. Pic: Simon Wootton


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