Board games are big business. Or so Hollywood would like you to think. Despite the big-screen adaption of Battleship sinking dramatically on its opening weekend earlier this year, we’ve still got Candyland (starring Adam Sandler), Risk and Monopoly (helmed by Ridley Scott) on the horizon for 2013. But long before Tinseltown’s top brass turned their eyes to the dusty recesses of holiday house games cupboards everywhere, the venerable Tim Rice set his sights on the oldest board game of all.
The Production Company’s second outing for 2012, Chess is helmed by veteran stage director Gale Edwards. Set at the height of East/West Cold War tensions, it tells the story of an international chess tournament and the shifting love triangle of Freddie (Martin Crewes), the American champion defending his title, his assistant-cum-girlfriend Florence (Silvie Palladino), and Russian opponent Anatoly (Simon Gleeson).
In his review of the 1988 Broadway production, Frank Rich called it “three hours [of] characters yelling at one another to rock music”, and he’s not far from the truth. The score — from ABBA masterminds Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus — is a genre-straddling delight. From soaring ersatz opera to thumping guitar anthems, it’s a little like hearing Puccini taken from behind by Springsteen.
Premiering on the West End in 1986, Chess has a chequered history. Significantly re-worked for its 1988 Broadway premiere, again for its 1991 Sydney opening and several times since by erstwhile Andrew Lloyd-Webber collaborator Rice and a rotating cast of directors, there are as many versions of Chess as there are variants of the game itself.
Here, we’re treated to the original London version but with some alterations; none of them clever, some of them simply unnecessary. From the bizarre shifting of Florence’s second-act tear-jerker Heaven Help My Heart to the top of the show, to the bewildering switcheroo during another of Florence’s big numbers, where she departs the stage mid-song only to have it finished by a slightly-out-of-his-depth and significantly-out-of-his-vocal-range Michael Falzon as the Arbiter (who, it must be said, despite his completely inexplicable shirtlessness for the entire show, is capable and compelling in the rest of his role). The twists and turns in Edwards’s apparent reworking of the show have left the plot difficult to follow.
Paladino is fascinating as complex, spirited Florence, and her bell-clear voice shines against the 25-piece orchestra led by musical director David Piper. Mark Dickinson and Bert LaBonte are adept as supporting players Molokov and Walter, and Alinta Chidzey as the Russian’s wife, Svetlana, is a force to behold despite her character’s limited stage time.
Crewes as Freddie finds his feet — and manages to stop the show — in the second act after a strangely-pitched toddler-cum-teenager turn in the first act. But the real star is Gleeson, whose solemn intensity as tortured champion Anatoly is matched only by his first-rate voice.
The talented ensemble works hard, and Tony Bartuccio’s elegant choreography, for the most part, works. The show falls down whenever Edwards forgets she’s telling a small story on a grand scale; seemingly attempting to do the opposite. The unsettling schizophrenic psycho-ballet that happens during one of the show’s dramatically underscored chess matches is one of many moments where Edwards doesn’t quite trust the material to engage the audience, adding frills and flourishes like some community theatre troupe gone mad and slightly blind. Edwards has her actors throw chairs, stare intently into the middle distance and converse with each other’s backs from 10 metres away — and to their credit, they mostly make it work.
Uneven as the staging is, The Production Company has, typically, turned out a world-class show with less-than-bountiful resources and a limited rehearsal period. And though this production is far from Chess at its finest, it’s a work that deserves to be seen far more often.
The details: Chess plays the State Theatre, Arts Centre until August 26. Tickets on the venue website.