TV/Film/Theatre

Theatre Review: CHESS at the Union Theatre

1 Mar 2013 at 22:47

Well that was quite an evening. I’m on the train home from seeing CHESS at the very small Union Theatre in Southwark. Because of my working hours I very rarely get to go out in the evening, so it was really nice to do something a bit different. I bought the tickets ages ago and thought I had only bought two, but when I retrieved the paperwork yesterday, it turned out I had bought 4. I didn’t think I could flog the spare two so I rang the box office to ask if it would be possible to return them on the night if they had demand for them. Yes, came the response. In the meantime my LBC colleague Anthony Davis said he’d like to come with a friend, so we met up at All Bar One in Leicester Square, with Joe Pike, another colleague from LBC, where we had a drink or two with another LBC colleague, Raj Pattni, who was holding his leaving do there. Raj is a very great man and we are all very sorry to see him go. Safe to say by the time we left at 615, he was somewhat rat arsed.

We got to the venue and were told that two of my tickets had subsequently been resold so Anthony and his guest couldn’t come in. I am afraid I rather exploded. “But you said you were returning them,” they said. “No,” I said. I asked if it was possible to. It all got a little heated until it turned out that Anthony’s guest had acted at the theatre before and started ‘mwahing’ the rather aggressive theatre manager who I had been rowing with. “You can sit on the director’s chair,” she told her.

It really is a very small theatre, with a maximum capacity of 50 punters. Very intimate. The cast are almost on top of you, blaring out tunes about two feet from your face. It was quite unnerving at times. The set was minimalist in the extreme, with not even a chessboard floor, which has always been present in the other productions I have seen. But it worked and the lack of sophistication and scenery seemed not to matter after a while.

One of the main complaints about CHESS is that its storyline is very complicated. Perhaps one of the best aspects of this production is that it tells the story in a way that anyone who’s never seen it before can easily follow. Despite the cast being necessarily quite small, the characters were allowed to breathe, and even the minor characters resonated well.

For those not familiar with CHESS it tells the story of the cold war through the game of chess, and the battles between Russian and American chess champions. There’s a defection, two love stories and the spying game is integral to the plot. The two songs that non-CHESS afficionados will all recognise are I KNOW HIS SO WELL and ONE NIGHT IN BANGKOK.

There were several highlights. Svetlana’s SOMEONE ELSE’S STORY was one and NOBODY’S SIDE another. The rendition of I KNOW HIM SO WELL provoked me to say to Joe “we can go now”. I think he was a tad embarrassed as my voice is clearly louder than I think it is, and several people turned round, smiled and nodded assent.

My only quibble with the show was the quality of some of the singing. I thought Freddie Trumper and the Arbiter had rather weak, weedy voices which didn’t resonate like most of the others. For me the undoubted star of the production is Nadim Naaman who lays Russian chess champion Anatoly Sergievsky. His acting and singing were a joy and in some ways he carried the whole thing at times.

The lowlight of the evening came a few minutes before the interval where a young lady in the front row threw up all over the edge of the stage area while the cast were in full song. But the show must go on, and it did!

Anyway, CHESS is playing until 16 March and has sold out every night,although there are usually a few returns if you turn up on spec. Well worth it. A great night out.

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