Archive for May, 2018

Writer: Molière     Adaptor: Christopher Hampton      Director: Gerald Garitti


Even if Brexit is unstoppable, the Entente Cordiale looks set to live on, exemplified by this production of a Molière play, written in 1664, adapted by an Englishman, directed by a Frenchman, performed by French and British actors and spoken in both French and English in roughly even measures.

The production requires sur, sub and side titles, and all seat positions in this three-tiered theatre appear to be covered. French-to-English translations appear in white text, English-to-French in yellow. It takes time to get used to, but it all works fairly well. As Christopher Hampton’s adaptation tells of a French family that has emigrated to Los Angeles when Dad buys a film studio, it is logical that both languages should be in use, but less so that characters should repeatedly switch between them in mid conversation. Of course, logic is never going to play a big part in a play such as this.

As with most plays in which the plot hinges on a character’s gullibility, suspension of disbelief is essential. Here, the gullible one is family head, Orgon (Sebastian Roché) who takes in the vagrant Tartuffe and is taken in by his piety and perceived wisdom. As the play has alternative titles of The Hypocrite and The Imposter, it quickly becomes obvious that Orgon is heading for a fall, notwithstanding warnings from his son Damis (George Blagden) and others in his family. He insists that Tartuffe will marry his daughter Mariane  (Olivia Ross) against her wishes and remains oblivious to his lusting after his wife Elmire (Audrey Fleurot).

We wonder whether forced marriage is actually legal in California and, in a more general sense, why Hampton has chosen to transplant the play to there. Brief references could be taken to allude to Hollywood’s current woes, but these are passing and a final scene which openly satirises the current American Presidency comes across as clumsy and obvious. For more than half an hour at the beginning of the play, characters stand in clusters to talk about nothing else but Tartuffe and some of their chat is so turgid that it is hardly worth reading the translations. We have a long wait to see if the titular character himself can possibly live down to all this adverse hype and, when he eventually arrives, we are not disappointed.

Our first sight of Paul Anderson’s Tartuffe is with his arms raised sideways in crucifixion pose, a messianic figure, who is, at once, obsequious and dominating. He speaks (only in English) with the pronounced Southern drawl of a Baptist preacher and sings Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Although similarities with a figure seen at a recent royal event are almost certainly unintended, this interpretation of the character begins to show us why Hampton draws parallels between the court of Louis XIV and Donald Trump’s America. Unsurprisingly, all of the production’s most entertaining scenes coincide with Anderson being on stage.

Andrew D Edwards’ striking set design has the look of a chic gallery for modern art, with what could be a multi-medium Turner Prize exhibit as its centrepiece. It forms part of a production, directed by Gérald Garutti, which has enough imaginative flourishes to keep the audience engaged and which marks a bold attempt to breathe fresh life into a creaking 17th Century classic. Nonetheless, much of this Tartuffe is still tough going.

Performance date: 29 May 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Book: Warner Brown      Lyrics: Warner Brown and David Heneker      Music: David Heneker      Director: Jenny Eastop


Revived as part of the Finborough Theatre’s British Musicals season, The Biograph Girl, an account of the rise of Hollywood’s silent movie industry in the teens and twenties of the last century, dates only from 1980. This comes as a surprise, because an old-fashioned musical style which owes more to Ivor Novello than to Lionel Bart or Andrew Lloyd Webber, suggests something much earlier.

The show had a modest initial West End run at the Phoenix Theatre, but, shortly thereafter, Torvill and Dean popularised Jerry Herman’s superb score for the erstwhile Broadway flop Mack and Mabel and that became the early Hollywood musical of choice. Mack Sennett appears again here, characterised in Matthew Cavendish’s pratfalling, scene-stealing performance as a man who lived his life in the manner of a Keystone Cop.

The chief problem with Warner Brown’s book is that it charts movie history in sketchy, semi-documentary style without fully developing a central narrative focus to drive the show. Famous names come and go, but Brown’s interest seems not to be in their lives, but in their industry. His lyrics, co-written with composer David Heneker, range from the mildly amusing to the predictable, while lines such as “…your dreams come true on the casting couch” and “every lady needs a master who can guide her through” are pretty well guaranteed to enrage supporters of today’s Me Too movement.

Heneker is no Herman, but his score, played on a single piano by musical director Harry Haden-Brown, is pleasantly hummable. Director Jenny Eastop’s production is zestful, if not over-imaginative and it includes several excellent performances. Sophie Linder-Lee is a bubbly Gladys Smith (aka Mary Pickford, aka America’s Sweetheart, aka The Biograph Girl), the 21-year-old child star that her studio will not allow to grow up; Linder-Lee manages to be endearingly juvenile and, at the same time, steely and avaricious. Emily Langham’s sweet-natured Lilian Gish, a serious stage actor from New York who looks down on the burgeoning film industry, is the closest that the show gives us to a character that we want to root for.

The show’s strongest theme centres on the struggle between art and commerce that has defined Hollywood throughout its history. Jonathan Leinmuller’s DW Griffith is a proud and upright visionary, demanding truth in his films, but denying reality in the real world and believing that audiences would want silent Shakespeare more than talking pictures. His Birth of a Nation stirs up racial tensions in the Deep South and his Intolerance inspires indifference everywhere. In the long-term, both were to gain critical plaudits, but it is Mack Sennett who rakes in the cash.

Some musicals benefit enormously from being miniaturised to fit into tiny venues such as the Finborough, but, performed here with minimal set and props, this is not one of them. The story and songs are too slight to compensate for the absence of big theatre spectacle and this contributes to a feeling that the show is as dated as silent movies themselves must have seemed with the advent of the talkies.

Performance date: 24 May 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

PREVIEW: Swinging Back in Time

Posted: May 25, 2018 in Theatre

They say that, if you remember the Swinging 60s, you weren’t really there. However, perhaps the more pertinent question is whether the era itself, as it has been mythologised, was ever really there. Now, 37 years after Liverpool introduced its highly successful Magical Mystery Tour, London has its own bus tour, Swinging 60s Experience, setting out to find some answers and The Reviews Hub’s Stephen Bates hopped on board to swing back in time.

The label “Swinging London” first appeared on a Time magazine cover in 1966, rather endorsing the view that the whole thing was dreamed up by the Americans as a fantasy escape from their own period of Civil Rights disturbances, political assassinations and the Vietnam War. However, the music of the era is no fantasy and, rightly, this is where the tour’s focus lies, taking us back to an age when Paul McCartney could only imagine what it would be like to be 64 and Mick Jagger still had plenty of time on his side.

The tour’s normal starting and finishing point is the Victoria and Albert museum, but, on this occasion, our bus, a gleaming red 1965 Routemaster, sets off from the Hard Rock Cafe in Piccadilly and a soundtrack of 60s classics begins, to be interrupted only by the voice of our guide. As the engine revs up, Jimmy Ruffin’s What Becomes of the Broken Hearted hardly seems the most optimistic start, but, by the time we get to a near-gridlocked Hyde Park Corner, the Animals’ We Gotta Get Out of This Place expresses the views of most passengers perfectly.

The traffic eases (very slightly) as the bus reaches Sloane Square and the beginning of King’s Road, which, the tour guide informs us, was built in the 1640s “before any of the Rolling Stones were even born”. Nowadays, the road has many more locations with stories of the 60s than it has red ‘phone boxes. We see the hotel, then named the Royal Court, where the Beatles stayed on their first visit to London in 1963 to record their Please Please Me album. We pass Ringo Starr’s current London home and the Chelsea Potter pub where Michael Caine and Terence Stamp hung out back in days when the price of a pint could have stretched them.

The is some alarm when we pass the Chelsea Drug Store, associated with the Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want, to discover that it is now a McDonald’s restaurant and there is further bad news for Stones fans when we reach the venue where Bill Wyman first auditioned for the band and see that it has become a branch of Paddy Power. The site of Mary Quant’s boutique, the town hall where Judy Garland made the last of her many marriage vows Jimi Hendrix’ pad and the flat once shared by Mick Jagger and Brian Jones all attract passing interest and Benny Hill’s home less so, but then he had to wait until 1971 to have a number one hit.

Theatre addicts could well observe that it was all happening between the Royal Court and the Finborough in those days, even though a lot of what we are told feels like insignificant trivia. However, the Troubadour in Earl’s Court is of real importance, being the venue where little-known Bob Dylan and Paul Simon played early gigs. Once the tour gets fully into its stride, hopefully greater efforts will be made to coordinate the music being played with the locations visited.  Without this, the whole experience tends to feel a little disjointed.

By marketing this one-hour ride as a tour of “West London’s cradle of rock”, the organisers get out of having to negotiate further heavy traffic by taking in, say, Abbey Road and Carnaby Street. Two and four hour tours are also on offer. As a parting thought, it would be a nice touch if the last tours of the evening could end on Waterloo Bridge. Unlike many of the sites seen on the ride around Chelsea, the sunset there is something just as spectacular as when Ray Davies wrote about it half a century ago.

This article was originally written for The Reviews Hub:



Faced with saturated media coverage of Harry and Meghan’s nuptials, the theatre could seem like a good place to escape all talk of royal weddings for an hour or two, but not so at London’s Union Theatre, where the new satirical musical HR Haitch has just opened. The show’s director, Daniel Winder, took time off to chat with The Reviews Hub’s Stephen Bates at the base of his Iris Theatre Company, St Paul’s Church which is in the heart of Covent Garden.

Daniel founded Iris Theatre in 2007 and has been its Artistic Director ever since; “i trained as an actor at Drama Centre, but had a previous career as a theoretical physicist”, he says, smiling at this unusual change of vocation and adding “I was all purpose understudy for the first three or four years (of Iris Theatre) but I’ve not been on for four years now and let’s hope it never happens again”. St Paul’s is still a fully-functioning church, known as “the actors’ church” and Iris Theatre stages site-specific productions there for two-and-a-half months every Summer.

HR Haithc marks a breakthrough for the company; “It’s the first time that we’ve done a full length run with another theatre and it’s the sort of start of an ongoing process, because we’re doing a four-and-a-half week run of Arabian Nights (at Hoxton Hall) in September”. Daniel explains; “This (St Paul’s) is still the centre of what we do … but opportunities for growth exist outside this building rather than inside”.

Daniel has been involved closely with the development of HR Haitch since its inception: “about 5 years ago now, we started a process of doing new musical one-nighters and we also run a Christmas song writing competition called Xmas Factor… Maz (Evans) and Luke (Bateman), who wrote HR Haitch, first met at one of these and we put them together…they then won two of the competitions and we commissioned them to write a full musical…in 2015 they came to me with the idea of a mixed race person entering into the royal family and we did workshops”. So this was a case of fiction becoming fact? “Yes, when the news about Harry and Meghan broke…literally in January or February…and it’s all been turned round in a few weeks…it all came together very quickly”.

After almost 11 years working as a director, this is Daniel’s first full musical. “I’ve done a few one-nighters here, but I’m not Thom Southerland, I’ve not done 100 musicals…in the past, the majority of my work has been Shakespeare or family shows like Treasure Island”.  So what attracted him to this project? “We are satirising both high and low, it’s a classic, very English comedy ploy… you have someone low class and their family clashes into the Royal family” Touches of Shaw’s Pygmalion perhaps, but Daniel adds “within that, there’s a large satire of the Royal family and there’s also a satire of Millennial youth culture…the girl is Essex…there is also satire of the current political environment in terms of referendums and there is a referendum (about the Royal family) in the story…we call it “Rexit” and that always gets a laugh”. 

It becomes clear that Daniel takes a great interest in the future development of musical theatre as a whole. “My general feeling is that I see a lot of new musicals come through this building…theres one big risk with them, it seems to me that there’s a lot of sub-Jason Robert Brown kind of 20-something middle class kids’ emotional problems, song cycle type of stuff and, for me, if they didn’t have the songs in them, would they stand up as plays?” He advocates strongly that, even in musicals, the play’s the thing, adding “Maz, Luke and I wanted to create this piece with a strong narrative arc, something that is unashamedly and unapologetically popular in form, songs that you can hum. There are a lot of people who want to be Sondheim and, unless you’re Sondheim, you’re always going to come across as a poor comparison. I think we should all want to be Lionel Bart. For me, what is important is that the book should stand alone as a play”.

HR Haitch runs until 2 June at the Union Theatre, but does Daniel hope to take it further? “I would love to. i was always trying to create something that could have a future…we’re not looking at vast expense, (it’s) just a cast of six and a single piano, that’s built into the narrative…it was never meant to be a West End Show and it’s never going to be a West End show…my dream would be somewhere like Menier Chocolate Factory”.

A musical theatre novice Daniel may be, but, while he does not try to hide his enthusiasm for the form, he tempers it with touches of realism. “But it’s hard” he shrugs, “there’s a whole world of economics that doesn’t work… there’s still a step missing (for low-budget musicals) where you can have a 100-200 seater and take some risks and have a chance of recovering your money”.

For the immediate future, Daniel’s schedule is busy. “I go into rehearsals for The Tempest next week and then we’ve got Three Musketeers and Arabian Nights” The Tempest will be the twelfth Shakespeare play that he has directed professionally, but, having dipped his toes into musical theatre, are there any classic shows that he would like to work on? He responds instantly “Man of La Mancha”. Let’s hope that this does not prove to be an impossible dream.

This article was originally written for The Reviews Hub:


Writer: Felicity Huxley-Miners      Director: Richard Elson


Girl meets boy, girl Rugby-tackles boy and so begins an imperfect relationship. Felicity Huxley-Miners’ short (70 minutes), bitter-sweet new play introduces us to Ellie and Rob, a couple who we come to feel need a lot of things in life, but not each other.

The opening scenes feel like an old-fashioned screwball romcom in which, say, Goldie Hawn could have been Ellie and the writer, taking on the role herself, certainly plays it that way. However, we already know that Ellie’s dramatic first entrance had been to intervene when Rob was about to jump under a train, which leads us to expect that the play will take us to much darker places.

David Shears gets Rob, the ordinary Geordie bloke who has just lost his girlfriend to his best mate, precisely right, but the chemistry between him and Huxley-Miners’ Ellie always feels completely wrong. If this is a deliberate ploy to show a dysfunctional relationship, it is very clever acting indeed. Having rescued Rob, Ellie goes several stages further than a typical Samaritan and invites him to share her bed. “Too much too soon” we think and we are right.

The needy stare in Huxley-Miners’ eyes, her frail demeanour and the desperation in her gestures make it clear that Ellie is by far the more troubled of the two. Having lured Rob into her web, she uses all her guile to keep him there, but this central section of the play is its least convincing. Rob’s inability to walk out is irritating, as are Ellie’s semi-comic attempts to keep him. We are told that Rob is close to his mother, but not his father and that Ellie is estranged from both her parents, but deeper knowledge of their past emotional lives would have helped us to understand them better and to care more for them.

At a time when the mental health issues affecting young people, facing the intense pressures of modern life, are being brought into sharper focus, the play has much to say. Rob, coming out of a failed relationship and discontented with a job that he hates, struggles to see the point of carrying on. Ellie is told pointedly that she needs to like herself, but she persists with the misguided mission to make Rob, a man too wrapped up in his own problems, to like her instead.

Director Richard Elson’s production tunes in well to the shifting tones of the play. In the Shadow of the Mountain needs more depth and it needs more polish, but it makes a brave stab at probing the turbulence inside so many young minds today.

Performance date: 17 May 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Director: Ellen McDougall


News that Chinese television did not broadcast the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest, because the authorities there objected to two seemingly gay dancers and a few tattoos, reminds us that state censorship has never gone away completely and gives weight to this revue made up of songs banned in Germany by the Nazis.

The 85-minute show is a collaboration between the Gate Theatre and English National Opera, bringing together performers from diverse backgrounds. Baritone Peter Brathwaite and mezzo-soprano Katie Bray join forces with cabaret entertainers Lucy McCormick and Le Gateau Chocolat, a bearded, deep-voiced drag artist. It is a mix that sets a bizarre tone which sometimes suggests Gilbert and Sullivan being staged in a sleazy night club. The quartet is supported by three musicians – Geri Allen, Cassie Kinoshi and Fra Rustumji – and musical director Phil Cornwell.

Beginning with Lavender Song, the performers introduce themselves as “the buds that grow a little different”, dressing in exotic costumes to emphasise their point. The songs date from 1920 to 1939, sung in broadly chronological order. We are warned to expect nudity and lyrics of a sexual nature, but we get very little of either. The opening segments spring from the famously licentious Berlin of the pre-Third Reich era, yet most of the lyrics are innocent more than provocative. Bray and McCormick have to work hard to add lesbian touches to the flippant Best Girlfriends and it takes a long time for anything even mildly shocking to a modern British audience to come along.

Ellen McDougall’s uneven production is held together loosely by factual information and clowning, but some of the links feel amateurish and they drain the show of any energy that it has built up. As the audience gets showered in flowers and confetti and the stage becomes impossibly cluttered with props, we hear extracts from the Nazis’ encyclopaedia of banned songs and writers and we learn that entry therein could have been earned not only because of content deemed salacious or subversive, but through any connection whatsoever with black or Jewish people.

McCormick gives a star turn with Sex Appeal, a pastiche of Greta Garbo, but this marks the end of frivolity and things start to get better. Songs dealing with abortion and propaganda (should we call it fake news?) feature, before the performers take early (and lengthy) bows. The show’s real meat comes as an encore, when we hear expressions of outrage at racist persecution and the banning of inter-race marriages, sung with power and passion. It comes as a relief that, at last, the show has given us something to really savour.

Performance date: 14 May 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer: Terence Rattigan      Director:Rachel Kavanaugh


Like British theatre’s equivalent of a hardy perennial, Terence Rattigan’s 1946 play The Winslow Boy is never long away from our stages. This sturdy touring revival shows again why the story of a 13-year-old boy who is accused falsely of stealing a five shilling postal order continues to intrigue us.

It is mark of the play, based on real events, that Rattigan accepts neither that the sum stolen is trivial nor that the boy’s upper middle class family’s quest for justice is insignificant. The moral certainty which, seemingly, belongs to a bygone age, feels like a safe haven from the confused turmoil of the modern day and this could explain the play’s enduring popularity. Rattigan’s supreme craftsmanship as a dramatist could also have something to do with it.

The problem for director Rachel Kavanaugh is how to stamp her own mark on such a beloved classic, when audience expectations are pretty well set in stone. Wisely she does not try too hard to be innovative and settles for a production that, we suspect, has the same look and feel as most others over the last 72 years. Michael Taylor’s turquoise-walled set of the Winslows’ Kensington home and his period costumes endorse this view, as does the venue – the ornate late-Victorian Richmond Theatre.

Aden Gillett gives a fine portrayal of English stoicism as Arthur Winslow, the father who defends Ronnie, the son who has been kicked out of Osborne Naval College for the alleged theft. In his defiance, he takes on the Admiralty, not only risking bankruptcy and jeopardising his own health, but also requiring his older son Dickie (Theo Bamber) to sacrifice his studies at Oxford and making it necessary for his daughter Catherine to break off her engagement. Timothy Watson as Sir Robert Morton, the eminent and expensive barrister hired to represent Ronnie is exactly as haughty and aggressive in interrogating his client as he needs to be to carry off the great coup de théâtre which ends Act I.

Rattigan observes the patriarchal society of the period immediately preceding the First World War with wry humour and dwells on the rise of feminism. Ronnie’s mother Grace (Tessa Peake-Jones) is a dutiful wife to Arthur who has little say on how things develop. However Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s zestful and clear-minded Catherine, a member of the burgeoning Suffragette movement, is laying down a different path for herself and her generation. It could be seen as progressive that the journalist who arrives to interview the family is female, but she shows more interest in the sitting room curtains than in the court case. Wittily, Rattigan could be foreseeing that the journey towards gender equality would not be without its setbacks.

The real life Archer-Shee case on which the play is based was a cause célèbre in its day and set a lasting precedent in British law. The Winslows stir up the sort of media frenzy that, nowadays, would be reserved for the antics of a reality TV star and we ask whether this could really happen just for the sake if 25p. However, it is not about cash, it is about honour and Rattigan’s eloquent explanation of the place of honour in our nations’s psyche makes his play worth revisiting, if not too often, then from time to time.

Performance date: 8 May 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Writer: Oscar Wilde      Director: Jonathan Church


Glancing at the names of the main characters in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, all bar one of them titled, a natural reaction is to ask how on Earth can the problems of this cross section of the Victorian aristocracy be relevant to modern life? It is only when their problems turn out to relate to raging hypocrisy, corruption in high places and “historical” misdemeanours that we realise that not too much has really changed.

This revival of the 1895 play is presented as part of Dominic Dromgoole’s year-long Wilde season at the Vaudeville Theatre. The too virtuous to be true Lady Chiltern (Sally Bretton) thinks that she has found the ideal husband and the nation thinks that it has found the ideal politician in him. However, the seemingly upright and incorruptible Sir Robert Chiltern (Nathaniel Parker) has a dark secret in his past which comes back to haunt him and threatens to bring him down. The play asks whether he can be forgiven and allowed to carry on with his private and public lives. 

Wilde could be warning us that, if we demand standards of our politicians that we cannot live up to ourselves, we get the leaders that we deserve. Parallels between Sir Robert’s plight and the writer’s own precarious position in the 1890s are clear to be seen, but director Jonathan Church’s production allows the play’s serious themes only to give depth to its comedy and never to dampen it.

In his earlier play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde gives a nod to feminist causes by introducing as the catalyst for the action Mrs Erlynne, a fiercely independent woman who is prepared to be ruthless in order to succeed in a male-dominated world. Here, Mrs Cheveley, a blackmailer and a thief, has similar traits, although she is much more vicious. Frances Barber makes her deliciously venomous, in one scene appearing resplendent in all scarlet against the pastel shades of the set.

In this form, Barber is not easy to eclipse, but Freddie Fox does just that with a superb comic performance as the nonchalant and amoral Viscount Goring, friend and confidante of both Chilterns and “the idlest man in London”. Promiscuous and vain (“to love oneself is the beginning of a lifetime romance”), Goring gets the lion’s share of the play’s Wildean witticisms and Fox cashes them in for the lion’s share of the laughs. His disapproving father, the Earl of Caversham, is played in typically pompous style by Edward Fox; yes, father and son play father and son, a touch which adds considerably to the humour of a dad’s constant put-downs of his errant offspring.

Susan Hampshire as the sharp-tongued Lady Markby and Faith Omole as Sir Robert’s sister Mabel, a possible match for Goring, are both splendid. Simon Higlett’s elegant sets and lavish costumes help to give the production a solid and conventional feel, although there are times in the first two acts when Church could have livened things up by taking risks and thinking more outside the box. That said, there are no such reservations about a hilarious third act, which has hints of Feydeau, when Wilde’s writing, Barber and the two Foxes join forces to terrific effect.

When the laughter in this delightful revival dies down, Wilde’s pleas for forgiveness of past indiscretions linger in the mind, tinged with the sad irony that the playwright’s own fall from grace was to begin with his arrest on indecency charges even before this play had completed its initial run at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.

Performance date: 3 May 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub:

Chess (London Coliseum)

Posted: May 2, 2018 in Theatre

Music: Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus      Lyrics: Tim Rice       Director: Laurence Connor


This new “semi”-staged production of Chess, a musical that can be seen as a metaphor for the Cold War, is a great deal more welcome than the 2018 revival of the Cold War itself. 

The show was developed as a concept album and it then toured in concert form before premiering as a fully staged musical at the Prince Edward Theatre in 1986. By this time, composers Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus had already turned Europop into an art form with Abba and lyricist Tim Rice had established himself as a grand master of musical theatre. Their collaboration produced a collection of songs with enduring appeal, but the show has not been seen in the West End since the end of its initial three-year run.

Inspired by real events, the story tells of the battle for the World Chess crown between challenger, Russian nice guy Anatoly (Michael Ball) and reigning champion, American nasty guy Freddie (Tim Howar). With both the USSR and the USA regarding success at sports and games as symbols of national virility, the stakes are high. When Freddie’s aide, the Hungarian girl Florence (Cassidy Janson) defects to start an affair with Anatoly, the Russian defects to the West, leaving behind a wife, Svetlana (Alexandra Burke) and son.

It is becoming a tradition for popular musicals to be staged at the home of English National Opera every Spring and producers appear to have learned from past mistakes. There is no room here for great singers who can’t act, only for seasoned musical theatre performers. Cedric Neal as the match Arbiter and Phillip Browne as Anatoly’s second both impact strongly and Howar’s thunderous rock style contrasts beautifully with the soulful tones of Janson and Burke, who take complete ownership of the famous duet I Know Him So Well. 

Ball’s big moment comes with the now stateless Anatoly’s passionate Anthem. He steps to the front of stage and delivers the song with the confidence and power of a man who has sung it hundreds of times before, as indeed he has. It is a showstopper that can only be followed by the interval.

Stylistically, the music at the beginning of the show is all over the place. A Wagnerian overture is followed in quick succession by echoes of a Lehár operetta, Bon Jovi and a Sousa march. However, midway through the first act, Andersson and Ulvaeus begin to stamp a brand that is distinctively their own, with the result that uncertainty is left behind and the show moves from strength to strength. Rice’s sharp and intelligent lyrics tell the story and enrich the music, but there are also strong instrumental sections, played magnificently by the 60-piece orchestra, conducted by John Rigby.

The description “semi-staged” is made more or less redundant by Laurence Connor’s spectacular production, which makes all the right moves. The orchestra is on stage, but often obscured in Matt Kinley’s set design which begins with squares outlined in white across the entire pitch black stage. Projected images then show performers in close-up, flash up news footage to establish the story’s historical context and create colourful effects, such as engulfing the stage in flames for One Night in Bangkok. Slick dance routines, choreographed by Stephen Mear, contribute further towards making the show as thrilling for the eye as the ENO orchestra/choir and wonderful solo singing make it for the ear.

Quoting Rice’s lyric, “Nothing is so good it lasts eternally…”, but there are times during this production when we wish that it could be otherwise. Andersson and Ulvaeus may have found bigger commercial success from recycling old Abba hits for Mamma Mia!, but, on the evidence seen here, Chess must surely stand as by far their greatest achievement.

Performance date: 1 May 2018

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: