Mar 14 2015 | By More

✭✭✭✭✩    Pawn free

Church Hill Theatre: Tues 10 – Sat 14 March 2015

Attention to theatrical detail brings out some gloriously complex and layered moments in Edinburgh Music Theatre’s production of Chess, at the Church Hill Theatre to Saturday.

They are all the more remarkable for occurring just when the production should be at its most drab and dreary – as it depicts two American and Soviet Grand Masters locked in battle on the chess board at the height of the Cold War.

The Arbiters and ensemble. Photo: Alan Potter, StagePics

The Arbiters and ensemble. Photo: Alan Potter, StagePics

Freddie Trumper, the US grand master and reigning world chess champion is defending his title against Russian challenger, Anatoly Sergievsky. On the surface, each epitomises his country: Freddie with his flamboyant sense of commerce and the buttoned-up Anatoly with his flock of minders.

But they are both rather deeper characters than that. And under Mike Davies’ emphatic direction, EMT succeed in getting right inside the pair of them over the course of the musical, from their initial match in Merano, Italy, to when they are again in opposition, a year later in Bangkok.

That it does so, is largely thanks to three solid performances from the central characters. Ali Floyd as Freddie and Kenneth Pinkerton as Anatoly both combine strong singing voices with strong character creation.

Josephine Heinemeier perhaps finds less depth in her creation of Florence Vassy, Freddie’s long term girlfriend and second, although she makes Florence an excellent foil to both chess players. But she more than makes up for it with a singing voice which reaches deep into the emotions.

Which allows Heinemeier to find the passion of the character. And nowhere more so than in a stunning rendition of Heaven Help My Heart. Although her duet on the show’s big hit I Know Him So Well – which she shares with Lauren Gracie as Svetlana, Anatoly’s wife – runs it close.

fraught with difficulties

The irony is that, great as chess (the game) might be, it is inherently unerotic.

When Shakespeare wanted a romance-dampening pastime for jealous dad Prospero to suggest to his daughter Miranda to while away the hours with  hunky Ferdinand in The Tempest, it was to chess that he turned.

So lyricist Tim Rice’s choice of the game as a vehicle to bring his Cold War musical to the stage might seem needlessly contrary, particularly when he puts romance at the heart of the show. But their again, the very idea of a cold war musical itself is fraught with difficulties.

However, the use of chess as a metaphor for US-Soviet relationships in the Seventies feels totally appropriate. It is able to catch the paranoia of the time, while providing a surrogate arena for the two great nations caught in a nuclear deadlock to do battle.

It is to EMT’s huge credit that this is such a vibrant, punchy piece of musical theatre. It is a glorious noise that emanates from the Church Hill stage, giving full reign to the rock-based score, written by the Abba boys, Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus.

The Chess Game. Photo Alan Potter, StagePics

The Chess Match. Photo Alan Potter, StagePics

In the big ensemble scenes it can really ramp up the emotion. The framing of the chess matches in the first act is always a high-point, but here is particularly well done, thanks to  choreographer Sarah Aitken wielding her excellent dance troupe into a circling dance of delights on the apron stage, while high on the dais behind them, the Grand Masters glower and whisk the pieces around the chessboard.

The lighting here is vital to the overall execution of the piece, allowing the eye to switch focus between the antagonism between the dancers and the power play between Freddie and Anatoly.

EMT constantly ensure that the theatre part of their name gets proper billing. The early number Merano, with Hamish McCool as the Mayor, captures perfectly that collective municipal excitement when a major international event is going to brighten up a dusty backwater.

attention to detail

Compare that with the second half opener, One Night in Bangkok, with its dancing girls and salacious boys. Here’s a city which welcomes everyone, chess players too. And when the same girls reappear for The Soviet Machine, the note that this game is not about the chess is abundantly clear.

Care and attention to detail is evident everywhere you look. In the simple design, the onstage band and the balance between the music and vocals, the technical care is there.

This is a horribly wordy musical, however. So wordy that a pair of arbiters (Jennifer Good and Colin Richardson) have to be on hand to explain how things are developing. And it is in the overly-wordy ensemble pieces, such as opener The Story of Chess, that the crispness and clarity of utter precision is needed. The chorus aren’t helped that MD Neil Metcalfe is on stage, behind them. But it isn’t enough just to be able to sit back and listen to the wonderful noise, when the lyrics are what drives the plot.

That said, this is an inventive production which soars in all the right places. If it slightly overstays its welcome, that is down to the musical itself, which doesn’t quite know when to stop.

Running time 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.
Church Hill Theatre
Tuesday 10 – Saturday 14 March 2015
Evenings: 7.30pm. Saturday matinee: 2.30pm.
Further details:
Tickets from the Usher Hall ticket line:


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