Chess, The Coliseum, London WC2

Chess

Chess at the Coliseum is part opera, part rock concert, but full on spectacle. It has a large orchestra, positioned in full view, above the stage. It has fire eaters, stilt walkers, aerial silk dancing, a company of fifty people. There are video screens, pop concert style, at each side of the stage; showing the current singer in close up. There are video clips showing American capitalist advertising and Russian communist iconography. They have lavished both money and attention on this show and it has not gone to waste. Sometimes, it is good to see a big production and the extravaganza that can be delivered when no expense is spared.  The music and performances need to be strong to cope with these distractions, and luckily here that is the case. When Chess was written, it was set in the near present, however the world has changed so much sine the 1980s that now it has become historical period drama, and this has given it has a timeless quality that it did not have at that time.

Music by Benny and Bjorn from Abba and lyrics by Tim Rice, the songs are memorable and emotional. It is clever that the American characters have the more rock style songs. Tim Howar has the perfect voice for these songs, unsurprising I suppose, as his day job is lead singer with Mike and the Mechanics – a classic ’80s rock outfit. Alexandra Burke is Svetlana, the Russian wife, not many songs but she sings them very well. Cassidy Jansen plays Florence, which is the bigger part and she also has an amazing voice. Their duet “I Know Him So Well” is beautiful. Michael Ball is Anatoly, the lead character and is just as good as you would expect him to be. All four main singers are artists at the peak of their careers and they bring out the full potential of the songs. Phillip Browne and Cedric Neal, as Molokov and The Arbiter respectively, also have lovely rich voices.

The choreography is clever and witty. I particularly liked the British dance, with the suited, bowler hatted, umbrella wielding civil servants doing their homage to the swans in swan lake, while the typing pool work away in the background. There is so much going on, all the time, in this production that, no doubt, there are elements that I missed, however, rarely has two and three quarter hours flown by so quickly. The Coliseum is a venue that is more used for traditional opera than modern musicals and Chess fitted in very well. Seeing it here, and hearing it with the benefit of the ENO chorus, one realises that this is a show that could be performed in a venue such as this for centuries to come.

The Russia House (dir. Fred Schepisi) 1990

russiahouse_3
This is a John Le Carre novel given the Hollywood treatment. The story is as complex as you would expect from a Le Carre story, you will need your full faculties about you to decipher who is lying to whom, and the twists will keep you interested right until the end. Even the ending was unexpected given the author’s earlier stories but it is often nice to be surprised.
It was released in 1990 and is packed with big names of the time. It has Sean Connery, Michelle Pfeiffer, Roy Scheider, James Fox – it even has Ken Russell, as eccentric an actor as he was a director. Sean Connery plays a jazz loving, book publisher and is as good as I have ever seen him. Michelle Pfeiffer and Roy Scheider are excellent too, in quite complex roles.  I really enjoyed the soundtrack too, an interesting mixture of jazz and Russian influenced themes.
For me though, the real star of the movie was Russia. It was one of the earliest movies to be allowed to shoot on location in the Soviet Union. Moscow and Leningrad (St Petersburg now) look austere, monumental and beautiful.
The settings here capture a time and place perfectly; adding an extra dimension to an already vey good film.