Theatre in Wales

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Great Game

Aberystwyth Summer Musical

Aberystwyth Arts Centre- Chess , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , July 22, 2011
Aberystwyth Summer Musical by Aberystwyth Arts Centre- Chess
“I think it's a great sadness that there is a distinction between serious theatre and musicals.” Not the view from the Mackintosh organisation, but that of Dominic Cooke of the Royal Court in conversation with the Evening Standard in 2007. “Chess”, premiered in 1986 set in 1979, led musical theatre into new territory. Its subject is contemporary politics, the elevation of chess to national rivalry and an East-West bargaining chip. Eschewing familiar Cold War Deighton-Le Carre imagery, its settings are Merano in the South Tyrol and Bangkok.

Producer Alan Hewson, and his now established artistic team, are guaranteed to deliver visual flair. In Ali Allen’s design two giant chess knights frame the action. They reach the full height of Aberystwyth’s proscenium. Upstage, pairs of partitions glide together to represent not just chess pieces but the wall, physical and ideological, that ran down Europe’s centre.

Leighton Rafferty’s Arbiter, in striped waistcoat and ankle-length coat, has the sides of his head shaven. His hair is a vertical quiff, he wears fob chains and his eyes are a black stripe. When the championship match starts four dancers, Edward Lewis French, Helena Christie, Matthew Bradley and Emily Luke-Taylor, symbolise the game. The moves are from classical ballet. The costumes, with their black straps and Mohawk haircuts, are a sly reminder that stylistically this was the age of Punk. Selina Nightingale is costume co-designer and supervisor.

The genre of “Chess” is rock-musical, a genre with a tendency to large-scale declamatory singing. The action is sung-through with scant dialogue. The ensemble scenes have the characteristic deftness that the Aberystwyth audience now knows well to expect from Anthony Williams.

“Merano” is all Lehar-esque gaiety, with champagne flutes and little hand flourishes. The defection scene starts with dancers behind a row of desks, a nod perhaps to “Thoroughly Modern Millie”. The witty dancing is done in pinstriped trousers and skirts and large, geeky spectacles. A number that celebrates Soviet triumphalism is done with stamping feet and the ensemble in red t-shirts.

The Aberystwyth musical has lustre enough to attract a cast from far and wide. Tim Rogers, originally from Australia, is the Chess Master as rock star. In the sedate Alpine spa he is in white t-shirt and denim jacket with sawn-off sleeves. Freddie Trumper is profane, nakedly commercial, aggressive- “All communists deserve to be abused.”

Lori Haley Fox has done Broadway. She sings Svetlana with those Russian “r”’s and distinctive vowels. Julie Stark’s Florence has a voice so big, and so good for the material, as to defy belief. Stephen McCarthy is tall and saturnine as master manipulator Walter De Courcey, the Man from the Agency. As his Machiavellian opposite number James Dinsmore can angle his left eyebrow upward and give his mouth a disdainful, rightward twist. Nice. At the centre Tom Solomon gives Anatoly warmth and humanity as well as a supple and mellifluous singing voice.

Musical director Michael Morwood and the five-strong band are out of sight, stage rear. As befits the music Hattie Scott provides a strong bass line. Christian Carpenter’s guitar switches to acoustic in a quieter moment. It sounds as if a vibraphone is hard at work.

“Chess” is a big musical. Since opening hardly a year has passed without a production. It has played Sydney, Los Angeles, Cape Town. It has melodies- “I Know Him So Well”, “You and I”- that the audience leaves humming. But there is no credit to an author of the book. It shows. The first action that the producer of “Mama Mia” did was to hand the concept to a writer for theatre. The two acts of “Chess” are formally out of balance. The audience is led to believe that the American, Freddie Trumper, is to be the main character. But, despite his childhood suffering, his histrionics, egotism and greed- “An extra twenty grand or I won’t play”- preclude much sympathy.

Act One has narrative, but less in the way of dramatic content. It is akin to the opening, logical gambits of the game. Little emotional engagement has been won when the world championship is decided. In the absence of a writing craftsman the characterisation lacks shading. But then Act Two switches to Anatoly as the central character. The act is much stronger dramatically with emotional depth. The music has greater variation and texture. The game as metaphor for the tactics of political power comes into sharp focus. The lead players become pawns in a game beyond them. The denouement is clever.

The 2010 production is a hard act to follow. The foreword to the programme says as much. “Chess” is different and in a big way. The audience is warmed up pre-show with songs like “We Can Start a Riot.” The first-night performance is terrific in gusto, verve and delivery. The sheer gutsiness of the great cast brings the audience out in applause again and again.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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