Chess the Musical

The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland produced a highly accomplished production of what is a ridiculously silly and rather outdated musical.

The music was written by members of ABBA and lyrics by Tim Rice, whose Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Technicoloured Dreamcoat better stood the test of time than Chess. The plot follows two international chess players during the height of the cold war, one American one Russian, and the drama and tension that follows the Chess World Championships over multiple years; including various love triangles, East and West tensions and dramatic walk-outs during matches.

There are a few fundamental issues with the concept and script. There is a distinct lack of space for character development and the plot is threadbare to say the least. Performing the musical in 2017 is also in many ways simply asking too much of your audience. The musical worked in the 80s because it was an ironic take on the events of the time. But now thirty years on, half of the audience, not to mention none of the cast, will have been alive in 1986 to experience the Cold War. As a younger audience member the 80s music and style are amusing enough as it is and it’s difficult to draw a line between what was and what wasn’t meant to be ironic at the time the musical was written.

Undergraduate students at the RCS came together from a multitude of disciplines to contribute to the show, Musical Theatre, Music, Production Arts and Design and Production Technology and Management. Across the board the talent of all involved was evident. The set was brilliant, utilising the chess theme without going overboard, its most prominent feature is a huge grid that hangs above the action and moves up and down to change the scene.  The whole thing had an industrial feel with multiple levels, metal balconies with stairs down to a raised central platform and the stage, allowing for effective use of the space, especially in chorus scenes.

The orchestra was incredibly good, and deserves particular credit. The singing was the strongest aspect of the performances and the chorus songs were all extremely impressive vocally. If it weren’t for the fact that all the performers were in a two year age range the RCS production could have easily passed for a professional one.

Daisy Ann Fletcher as Florence Vassy, the woman the two champions fight over and arguably the lead role, was particularly commanding. But generally performances and characterisation were not given enough room to develop, mainly due to the limited script. The small sections of real acting we got to see from Fletcher were powerful but much too restricted. There was also a distinct lack of chemistry between the romantic leads, which was the fault of both the play and the direction it seemed.

Tech was used plentifully and with great effect. Lighting was very well done, particularly the use of numerous small spotlights. Live film was taken with cameras carried by chorus members and shown on the screens, to represent TV footage, an advanced version of a technique used recently by the EUTC production of Frost Nixon at Bedlam theatre. This perfectly emphasised the prominence of news and television within the plot. The screens were also used throughout for a huge range of functions, which could have been too much but actually worked perfectly.

Costume was quite effective, playing up to the 80s theme, of particular note were some rather amusing bouncers with enormous shoulder pads and the chunky white trainers worn by all the chorus members, which would do best to stay in the past.

It’s hard to know how to assess a show with such high the quality performance and design, but where the material itself just doesn’t make the mark. After seeing the RCS’ version of Chess I have no interest in seeing the musical again, but I would love to see more of the Conservatoire’s work.

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Katrina Woolley

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