Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Chess Masters

Aberystwyth Summer Musical

Aberystwyth Arts Centre- Chess , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , August 10, 2011
Aberystwyth Summer Musical by Aberystwyth Arts Centre- Chess “Chess” is into its third week. So far it has won fifteen or sixteen standing ovations. An audience is to be trusted. The production has changed since its first night. The changes are not just the small details that pass between director and performers. Two changes are evident also to the viewer.

Back projection has been added that was formerly absent. The video is used sparingly. Its purpose is not directorial ostentation but to supplement the performance. It is used first as a narrative aid in spelling out scene location. This ensures that there is a seamless flow into the British Embassy scene and Anthony Williams’ witty choreography. In its absence, and the absence of dialogue, the audience formerly had a momentary doubt about quite where the defecting Anatoly had headed.

A video clip appears for dramatic purpose as part of a television interview. Thirdly, it is used for metaphorical underpinning. The World Championship game starts with the two players dwarfed by their faces in giant profile. It is a fine metaphor, for both the intense pressure placed on the players and the media razzmatazz that accompanies the contest.

The second change is in the music. A rock musical needs physical impact. It is no discredit to the sound team that the first night had high amplification. A full house in Aberystwyth represents around thirty tons of sound-absorbing ballast. The sound now has been subtly re-balanced. The small element of harshness has gone, to the benefit of the music as a whole. When Leighton Rafferty leads his Matrix team in “I’m on the Case” the singing is driven by Gethin Jones’ tremendous drumming. Towards the close of the first act Christian Carpenter produces some lovely, liquidy guitar tones.

The decision by Alan Hewson and team to stage “Chess” was made early in the year. Events in the world have so unravelled as to add some potent overtones. On August 1st the President of Russia called the USA a “parasite.” That has not happened in a while.

A second viewing also shows not only the pitch-perfect casting but the detail in the production. Stephen McCarthy and James Dinsmore are the same height. They wear suits and long coats, even the same kind of striped tie. One wears a light shirt, the other a dark shirt. Together they are the complementary, chilly men of power who lurk behind the scenes of international contest. For chess, read the reek that has emanated this year from FIFA and elsewhere.

Metaphor is nice to have, but theatre lives by emotion. The two acts are by any standard out of kilter- but it is the same with “Showboat” and that show is a classic. The first act of “Chess” is narrative. The emotional content is concentrated in the second. But Tim Rice does end on an emotional climax. The theme of a lost father is universal and Julie Stark brings the curtain down on a gut-wrenching high. “Stark” in the Nordic languages is the word for “strong”; hers is a voice, and a presence, that thrills.

A rock score is not the most obvious place to go looking for choral sound. But a late scene, “the Endgame”, has the whole company holding candles and singing in harmony. Jon Turtle uses bold, primary colour in his lighting design, rendering the Alpine heights in blue and Bangkok a beautiful red.

This was probably the only year in which “Chess” would have come to Aberystwyth. It is looking good at middle age, one, if not the best, of the rock genre. Musicals live or die by melody. Some of the Andersson-Ulvaeus numbers here out-do anything that Abba ever sang. “I Know Him So Well” has two quite distinctive voices in Lori Haley Fox and Julie Stark. The staging is simple. Standing some metres apart, they form one of the lasting images this year for theatre in Wales.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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