Oxford Playhouse, Thursday 27th November
I wish I'd written at the time about the semi-staged production of Chess that we saw in the summer -- a marvellous birthday present from Owen, who knew that I'd've travelled a long way to see any production of Chess, so a concert performance at the Albert Hall hosted by Tim Rice (and starring Marti Pellow) was the icing on the cake. If I'd had the review of that to refer back to, I'd've been able to compare notes more easily; tonight's production at the Playhouse was very different in all sorts of ways. For a start, it was fully staged, with an incredibly busy stage: I've always thought of Chess as a very static story, but this production managed to fill the stage with dancers and chorus nearly all the time -- which of course threw the one- and two-person scenes into much sharper relief, gave them much more of a sense of showing the private face of public characters.
The songs were all in a different order, too. If that sounds strange, bear in mind that Chess has had (wait for it...) a chequered history (tonight's programme won't be the only one to say that) involving many different versions and revisions, and, as with the town of Merano where the action opens, "the borders keep shifting around". In an article in the programme for May's concert performance, Tim Rice writes:
"directors felt they could put up with the confusion of the plot (a) because every few minutes another great tune turns up and (b) they could re-write chunks of the story themselves as no-one allegedly in control of the show seemed to know what the official version was anymore. I certainly didn't. During the past 20 years I have seen Chess on dozens of occasions in many different countries, and no two versions have been the same. Sometimes Freddie wins, sometimes Anatoly wins..."Like the game of chess itself, the musical has become a set of possible moves with infinite variations within which some standard patterns of play have established themselves.
In this version, the musical opens with Florence as a child in Budapest, losing her father, and ends with her being reunited with her father. I "see what they did there", framing the story, but it seemed almost too neat; and at the same time it seemed to weaken the ending. After Florence and Anatoly have sung "still we go on pretending / stories like ours have happy endings," it feels like cheating to try to have a happy ending; preserving the ambiguity would have given a stronger sense that the story doesn't really end -- that it's just one in a series of power games with no clear winner. Despite letting Florence's story frame the show, the director's notes insist: "We also wanted to make the show less 'all about Florence'", and this is the reason they cite for cutting "Heaven Help My Heart" (but not the two-line reprise of the tune and a variation on the words towards the end).
The settings were different, too (though the semi-staged version obviously had less 'setting' in the first place) -- "Nobody's on Nobody's Side" took place in a nightclub, with Florence getting more and more drunk throughout the song, falling into the arms of nearly everybody on stage. It worked well with the musical shape of the song, but felt odd for a song which has always seemed to be a soliloquy to be happening in public. It's a bit like seeing a favourite character from a novel portrayed on screen, though; the strength of the imagined version can be so great that any real version would seem at best strange and at worst just wrong.
The words seem to be as variable as the rest of the show; having listened to the CD so many times that I know it pretty much note for note, any alteration feels slightly wrong, but it's hard to tell how many of the changes are really for the worse. Some definitely are: in tonight's version of the scene where Florence quits, Freddie sings something along the lines of "Wouldn't your father ... be dying of shame", to which she replies "You know that there's nothing I've done to make him ashamed in my whole life" [accuracy not guaranteed, I wasn't taking notes] -- a far weaker exchange than the original "Wouldn't your father have begged you to stay in the game?" "He would, but he didn't know you -- he'd loathe your behaviour and so do I". Many of the changes to the words just seem pointless, though, change for change's sake: why change "Haven't you noticed we're a protagonist short / in this idyllic, well-produced scene" to "Haven't you noticed that we're a character short ..."? Why change "A drink on a clear moonlit night" to "A drink on a clear sunlit day" when the scene is an interior and there's nothing to suggest what time it is, it's just a tableau out of context?
Overall, though, it was a really good show. It was full of well-choreographed stage action, particularly in the Bangkok scenes (with pole-dancing and flaming torches!) and the merchandisers' song -- in the latter, Owen noticed the people forming the letters "CHESS" with their poses (which I missed), and I noticed the cheerleaders' pompoms being arranged into lines of colours at the point when they sing "Maybe it's a bit confusing for a game, but Rubik's Cubes were just the same..." -- there was so much going on at any one time that it was impossible to see it all. The singing was mostly excellent, too, particularly Florence and Anatoly; Freddie seemed to be having a lot of trouble with the high notes (particularly noticeable in "Pity the Child", which is bloody difficult, but he was definitely struggling) but otherwise was very convincing. And overall the sound was good, and even in the chorus songs a lot of the words were audible (which they sadly often weren't at the Albert Hall production, though I know so much of it anyway that I didn't have trouble following it). And the libretto definitely matters -- it's full of clever wordplay. To be honest I don't think there's any way to sing "A Model of Decorum and Tranquility" such that anybody who didn't already know it could hear all the words -- it's a quartet where the parts are closely interwoven but have completely different words, so it's kind of ambitious anyway -- but even that came across fairly clearly.
For those who haven't heard the musical (and therefore hopefully skipped all the dissection above!), I thoroughly recommend it: it's got a serious plot that's not your usual musical "girl meets boy/becomes famous/becomes a nun/flees Nazis" stuff, it's got clever and witty lyrics, and some really fantastic tunes -- several of which are available on last.fm.