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Review – Chess

by danielgrooms10 May 2017
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Daniel Grooms The ESNA Players, production of Chess performed at Loughborough Town Hall, Leicestershire, from the 4th – 8th April 2017

In BBC Radio 2’s listener poll of the UK’s ‘Number One Essential Musical’, Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice’s Chess came seventh out of hundreds of strong contenders. The award-winning ESNA Players’ production makes it very easy to see why.

Chess is one of those that has to be seen and heard to be taken seriously as on paper it doesn’t sell itself particularly well. Set against the backdrop of the infamous Cold War, we follow the competitive bid for championship between America and Russia over a game of chess which parallels and becomes a metaphor for the real war between these two countries. This game isn’t all black and white though – there is a compelling romantic subplot involving the two grandmasters fight for Hungarian-born Florence Vassy as well as the sinister scheming of the country’s delegates. Backing all this up is an electrifying score largely made up of foot-stomping rock and searing ballads. ABBA this is not.

As a show which is completely sung, Chess is an extremely hard task for any group but ESNA take to the challenge with aplomb. The casting is first class and rivals any professional troupe. As the temperamental Freddie Trumper, Jonny Painting gives a powerhouse performance vocally, almost blowing the roof off with his rendition of ‘Pity the Child’. He is aptly supported by Darryl Clarke as his rival both in love and on the board, Anatoly Sergievsky who proves his impressive range in an array of numbers that include ‘Where I Want to Be’ and act one’s closure, ‘Anthem’. The third player in this dangerous love triangle, Florence is arguably the strongest of them all though. As the woman torn between two countries and two men, Morven Harrison refuses to let you take your eyes off her. Her frustration, confusion and vexation all come across perfectly and her duet with Laura Brookes (also wonderful as sympathetic lover, Svetlana) is one of the highlights of the night – I am of course referring to ‘I Know Him So Well’. Her applause and ovation at the end is a tribute to one of the finest performances on the Loughborough stage this year.

The cast is well supported by a suave Meng Khaw as The Arbiter, being played in this production like a mixture between The Narrator in Blood Brothers and The Emcee in Cabaret as well as Jon Orton as the CIA’S Walter de Courcey who leaves the audience feeling just the right sense of distrust towards him. Gareth Busson is arguably given the most enjoyable song in his role as KGB top dog, Alexander Molokov with ‘The Soviet Machine’. Carl Brierley-Edwards’s energetic choreography is put to especially good use here with a ‘last-man-standing’ type routine involving two generations trying to outdo each other on the dancefloor. These exceptional leads are backed up by a full ensemble of twenty-one hardworking individuals that demonstrate a tremendous amount of energy and commitment. Highlights featuring them include the reporter sequences, the opening ceremony and my personal favourite, the Monty Python-ish ‘Embassy Lament’ which provides a much needed spot of comic relief.

There was one thing however which gave this production the extra air of professionalism and left you glued to your seat mesmerised. Aiding the cast and Gareth Wynne’s ludicrously good orchestra was the visual flair of the scenic design provided by the ingenious LED screens of Easyflex. The designs and operation under the control of Jez Malpas, Deb Heveran and Rachel Ingham made the production stand out a mile from so many others due to the usage of sharp and vibrant graphics. Whereas these screens have been seen on the Loughborough theatre scene before in such productions as Ladies’ Day and ESNA’s very own Jesus Christ Superstar, their quality is given a new lease of life in Chess. The flexibility of them means that they can swoop in from a variety of angles to add an extra dimension to a scene. From the opening song featuring a range of impressive, towering designs that reminded me of the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony to the beautiful imagery of the full moon on the Italian ski slopes, there is not a moment when the designs or indeed the screens feel overused or out of place and I look forward to seeing what the team behind them come up with next. It is sure to be as much of a visual feast as this was.

Emma Healey has taken on a mammoth task in directing Chess. A musical about espionage, love rivalry and an ancient board game is sure to have its difficulties but her production runs like clockwork. No moment feels too slow or too rushed and she has created a production which matches, if not succeeds the standard of a professional one. I genuinely doubt that I will ever see a revival of the show as good as this. It has well and truly made me a fan.

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