The World Chess Championship is about to take place in Merano, Italy. The American is defending his title against a new challenger, The Russian The American gives a press conference at his hotel at which he behaves petulantly and aggressively, denouncing his opponent, every other Soviet and the press with equal vigour. His performance is watched on television by the Russian and his KGB-employed second, Molokov, in their hotel. Molokov is inclined to dismiss the American as a nut. The Russian concedes that his opponent is eccentric but realises that every outrageous move made by the American is a calculated one. The Russian reflects upon his own rise to the topThe American stages an effective and insulting walkout during the Arbiter's lengthy recap of the match regulations immediately after the Opening Ceremony. None are more insulted than his own second, Florence Vassy, who is left to defend her player’s indefensible behaviour to a sneering and pompously protesting Molokov. During this exchange she meets the Russian player for the first time. The Russian shows some sympathy for her situation. Florence confronts the American back at their hotel, telling him that she can not tolerate his treatment of her for much longer. We learn that she was born in Hungary, left that country when only two with her mother in 1956 during the uprising and is now a naturalised British Citizen.. She has never discovered what happened to her father who 'disappeared' when the Hungarian uprising was crushed. She is determined to find out.
The first game of the contest begins with an atmosphere of mutual loathing hanging over the proceedings as the two players make their first moves. Tension builds as much offboard as on with both men resorting to underhand tactics to distract or enrage the other. Suddenly, high drama as the two players fling the board up in to the air. They walk out after nearly coming to blows. Florence and Molokov have an unofficial meeting to discuss the collapse of the match. Florence takes the initiative and tells Molokov where and when he is to deliver his player for a secret, off the record, meeting between the two contestants, in order that the match can resume without either party losing face. Molokov attempts to rattle Florence at one stage by implying that he knows some Hungarian history she might want to learn about.
Florence and the American arrive for the secret meeting. The Russian is late and the American leaves the restaurant in mock disgust. Almost at once the Russian and a junior member of his back up team arrive to find no opponent waiting for them, only his opponent's Second. During the conversation that follows, the Russian and Florence are quickly attracted to each other, the almost romantic mood rudely interrupted when the American returns. Some days later, the American and Florence are discussing the progress of the match. Things are going badly for the American who is unpleasantly agitated. He blames Florence for his failure and as they hurl abuse at each other, she tells him that she is going to leave him after the match, even if by some miracle he won it. The American is devastated and alternates between fury and pleading with her to stay. His paranoia about the Reds surfaces - he is convinced that the Soviets have something to do with both his loss of form and Florence's desertion, At an unidentified Western embassy some days later, the Russian, the newly crowned World chess champion, asks for political asylum.
The following year, The Russian is to defend his title against a new challenger from the Soviet Union in Bangkok. Florence and the Russian who have been lovers since his defection, are in Bangkok. They discuss his new opponent and wonder why the American is in town, as he has played no serious chess since his defeat in Merano. They also talk about the refusal of the Soviet authorities to let his wife out of the U.S.S.R.
Molokov and his team are confident that this time around they have a player who is totally trustworthy and can be relied upon (a) to win and (b) to stay in Russia. The Russian is interviewed on Thai TV. To his amazement he discovers that his interviewer is the American who proceeds to ask him about his personal life, about Florence and about his politics - never about chess. The American finally tells him (on the air) that arrangements have been made to fly his wife into Bangkok in time for the match. Enraged, the Russian storms out.
The Russian and Florence watch his wife (Svetlana) on television arriving in Bangkok. The event brings the tension between them to a climax. Florence is left alone with the TV still showing Svetlana's image. She recalls how well she knows the lover who has just left her. Svetlana recalls how well she knows her husband
The American forces his way into the Russian's quarters to offer him a deal. Despite the personal pressures already weighing heavily on the Russian, he has begun the match in great style, winning the first two games. The American now says that if his winning streak should suddenly come to an end then Florence will not be given information he claims to have received from the Soviets about her father. The American then approaches Florence, suggesting that if she would only return to him, not only would they be once again the best chess team ever witnessed, he also would be able to provide her with news (he does not say whether it is good or bad) she has always wanted to know about her past. She too rejects his offer. The deciding game in the match begins. Molokov and the American have a conversation which reveals them to have been in league against the Russian, albeit for very different reasons. Florence, watching the match, although not knowing that her lover been put under pressure to lose, sees his obsession with victory destroying his ability to care for her.
The Russian, defying everyone, plays like a dream and annihilates his opponent. He rejoices in his victory, but even as the crowds acclaim him and as his wife vainly attempts to make some kind of contact with him, he almost immediately feels a sense of hollow anti-climax. He despises himself for the narrow selfish ambitions and desires that satisfy him. So does Svetlana; any chance of reconciliation between them is gone. Florence and the Russian reflect simultaneously but separately, on their story that they thought was a very happy one; like the game of chess the game of love can be played in an almost limitless number of variations. Perhaps this was just one of many games that end in stalemate.
Florence – Sarah Galbraith
Anatoly – Nadim Naaman
Freddie – Tim Oxbrow
Svetlana – Natasha Barnes
Molokova – Gillian Kirkpatrick
Arbiter – Rhys Barlow
Directed by Christopher Howell and Steven Harris
Musical Direction by Simon Lambert
Musical Arrangements by Christopher Peake
Lighting by Ben Rogers
Bugger this production – I’ve spent the last couple of days humming One Night in Bangkok while I do the washing up (note: the song is not called One Night in Bangkok While I do The Washing Up) and trying to work out whether my vocal range would be better suited to the Elaine Page line or the Barbara Dickson line in I Know Him So Well. If you are of a certain age, this song will take you back immediately to the late 80s and hearing it on the radio on what seemed like a 15 minute loop; it was regularly on Simon Bates’ Our Tune on Radio 1, which they had on constantly at work and which used to do my head in even then. What does my head in even more is Him Indoors screeching Pity the Child around the place all the time.
I admit that I wasn’t really in the mood to go and see this; three times a week is more than enough for any man, and it being Sunday, I would rather have been curled up on the sofa with a cup of coffee in that semi-somnolent state which descends on you after Sunday lunch. After a certain amount of hilarity caused by Him Indoors’ complete and total inability to read a map properly (I swear that if he had been born Scott of the Antarctic, he would have spent quite a few years crawling round in the mosquito-infested mangrove swamps of equatorial Guinea muttering “I could have sworn it was this way” and kicking the huskies) we arrived at the admittedly unprepossessing Union Theatre and proceeded to freeze our nipples off for ¾ of an hour waiting for the auditorium to open. Whatever you do, go to the toilet before leaving home; there is a poster in the foyer thanking people for making donations towards a new piano but I think the money would have been much better spent doing something about the loos because even the thought of them makes me walk around saying ick ick ick. There’s something about these loos that puts me in mind of that film Quatermass and the Pit – I don’t know exactly what that big, green, glistening patch on the wall is but I swear its bigger every time I see it.
This is a well-enough directed show – even though it does go on a bit; 2 ¾ hours is a long time, and even then there have been cuts. There are some clever bits of staging and direction – but you can’t see very much of it because the place is just too damned small for it. During dance numbers here I’m always terrified that a dancer’s foot is going to take my eye out or that someone being lifted up on the shoulders of another dancer is going to crack their head painfully and messily on the lighting grid. Often you get someone standing on the stage with their nose less than six inches from your own, desperately trying not to make eye contact with you while they sing, and Chess is no exception Its crying out to be performed in a bigger space with better sightlines. Too often your view of the performers is obscured by another cast member’s backside, people are cramped together and only the lucky people in the front row of the middle block of seats (they’re arranged in a double row around three sides of a square) can actually appreciate the direction and choreography of a lot of the show. (Note to punters: after the interval, you are supposed to return to the seat you occupied during the first half. Two old dears decided to swap sides after the interval; cue lots of quietly outraged honking from the people they displaced when they returned to find their seats already occupied).
The black and white colour scheme is really overdone, as well. I know its relevant to the show, and makes good design sense when you are costuming on a limited budget, but when the entire inside of the theatre is painted black, watching black and white clad people on a black floor surface for nearly three hours, all brightly lit from above, is really, really tiring on the eyes because you get starved of visual stimulation. One is likely (if one is me) to start looking at small things in too much detail in order to keep your eyes occupied – for some reason, there are some really odd shirt collars on display and I can’t tell you how much I ended up being irritated by them. Semicircular scoops seem to have been cut out of them – perhaps for another show – and they look really very strange indeed. I noticed that the wheeled light box used for one of the final numbers – nice touch, very inventive, perhaps could have been used for more than just that one scene – needed a damned good cleaning, and when the member of the cast using it began to gob liberally all over it while singing at the top of his voice it was as much as I could do not to lean over, proffer my handkerchief and suggest that a good wipe might not go amiss. Perhaps I should have offered it instead to the chap in the front row who, during one of the quiet bits, began to clean his friend’s glasses using the bottom bit of his jumper and showing 2/3 of the theatre six inches of hairy navel.
Star of the show is undoubtedly Sarah Galbraith as Florence, who can belt with the best, but I did wonder why, if she was playing an American, all her vowel sounds were quite so Julie Andrews (getting toooo noooooe you, getting toooo nooooeee awl abouuwht you). No trace of an American accent whatsoever. No, I know Elaine Paige didn’t do one either, but that’s no excuse. Nadim Naaman is suitably morose as the Russian, and Tim Oxbrow almost literally screeches his tits off getting some of the high notes (must be a hell of a role to sing six or seven times a week for three weeks. One wonders if he will ever be able to sing again after this show. Rhys Barlow is a bit weedy to play The Arbiter, and I wondered why in this version he doesn’t sing One Night in Bangkok. I also wondered what the reasoning was in turning the role of Molokov into a female part, as it does rather unbalance the power-play aspect of the show. There is a lot of very impressive choral work going on in the concerted numbers, a great deal of which is unfortunately drowned out by the sheer volume of the orchestra. Performing a very loud show in a very small space does rather leave the audience somewhat frazzled – I spent most of the journey home feeling like there was someone sitting on my left shoulder playing a pair of cymbals. The music is pleasurable enough in that 1980s sung-through fashion (you will undoubtedly be humming a lot of it in the days following the performance; those ABBA boys knew how to put a good tune together. But the whole thing needs a bigger home in order that the direction can be fully appreciated. And the entire Russian/American plot now feels subtly dated and a little tired.
What the critics thought: