Chess is one of my absolute favourite musicals. The Tim Rice/Benny Andersson/Bjorn Ulvaeus (yes the guys from ABBA) show combines great music with the historic background of the Cold War, which is a period of history that I am definitely a nerd about. So when ENO announced that its summer musical would be this show (following on from Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard and Emma Thompson in Sweeney Todd) I jumped at the chance to get tickets.
Whilst I am a huge fan of the show, I am very aware of its flaws. The book is probably where a lot of its problems lie. The show follows Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Michael Ball), who is challenging American celebrity chess champ Freddie Trumper (Tim Howar) for the world championship. During the tournament he begins to question his loyalty to his country as he falls for Florence Vassy (Cassidy Janson), despite already being married. The focus squarely on Anatoly is a bit of a shift in this production, which whilst helping the story make sense, I did miss Florence playing a more central role (from when I saw the Craig Revel-Horwood production of show a few years ago, and from the Royal Albert Hall production). It also takes a long-time to get going; with the first 30 minutes being an awful lot of scene-setting which did seem to be testing the patience of those around me.
However, ENO’s production does place the music front and centre. The huge orchestra is on a platform at the back of the stage, and they elevate the score wonderfully. This is complimented by the strong cast. I was a bit disappointed when the cast was first announced, as I’d had pretty high hopes and Michael Ball struck me as far too old for the part. This is still the case, at least when he’s playing opposite Cassidy Janson and Alexandra Burke as his wife; but he is in great voice and ‘Anthem’ really bought the Coliseum down. I’d never seen Janson in anything but she did a great job with Florence’s tricky songs, and even made ‘Heaven Help My Heart’, usually a skip-able song, moving. Burke, who seems to attract a bizarre amount of criticism, was strong in a role that is pretty underwritten, and made ‘Someone Else’s Story’ actually quite moving (though I’m not sure what her and Janson did to the costume designer to deserve their outfits). I also enjoyed Phillip Browne as Molokov, who with the male ensemble, does a fab job of ‘The Soviet Machine’.
So on the one hand, I really enjoyed Chess. However, English National Opera itself did a pretty tricky job of making me feel welcome. To start, the tickets where ludicrously expensive, considering it is not a show that I think is massively well known outside of theatre audiences. This was exacerbated by the fact that the affordable tickets where mostly in the balcony (where I sat), and the staging (by Laurence Connor) was such that we frequently were unable to see key pieces of theatre action; including the actual chess matches and…Michael Ball singing in both Anthem and some of Endgame. It is incredibly frustrating when directors direct for just one part of the audience; and this was exacerbated by the choice to have limited other stage business and a reliance on nifty but get-old-quickly video screens.
Yet this wasn’t the most irritating thing that ENO did; that came in their musical audience only ban on bringing drinks (including water) and food into the theatre that hadn’t been purchased there. Whilst I appreciate and understand a desire to prevent people bringing picnics with them, banning water during a heatwave seemed kind of mad. This is all made even worse by the fact that this rule was targeted purely at audiences for Chess. The inherent snobbishness in the idea that musical audiences are in some way more likely to be rowdy than their ‘normal’ opera and ballet visitors is pretty terrible. Since the news of the policy broke, and people on Twitter got angry, ENO have now expanded this policy to cover opera audiences as well, but for me the damage has been done. The arts, and especially traditional venues, still have much to do to make them more accessible to new audiences, and considering opera is something that still has a reputation of elitism, you would think ENO would welcome an opportunity to try and get return visits from new audiences by making their experience one they would want to repeat. But alas.