Review: Chess, Union Theatre

“But nobody’s rules are the same”

With music from Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus  of ABBA and conceived by Tim Rice who also contributed the lyrics, the 1980s musical Chess had grand ambitions which have never really come to fruition as it remains a show that has been revised as often as it has been revived. This new production at the powerhouse of intimate musical theatre that is the Union is a version which has been sanctioned by Rice himself as the definitive version of this story of a love triangle in the world of international chess competitions set against the backdrop of the Cold War. But the potency of an intimate venue has to be carefully captured in order to make it truly work and this is where Chess comes a little unstuck.

Ryan Dawson Laight’s design has recast the Union into a shallow thrust, the size of the theatre meaning that most of the seats end up on the sides. Not an issue at all in and of itself but Laight has a large platform take up most of the space at the rear of the stage and so much of the action is forced forward and this, combined with co-directors Christopher Howell and Steven Harris having the performers play predominantly straight ahead, results in a production that too rarely engages with the vast majority of its audience. For the handful of eight or so people facing the stage head-on, it must be marvellous but if the theatre were full, more people would actually see Florence’s back than her face during the bruisingly raw final scene – that two directors can misuse such an intimate space this way is certainly problematic.  Continue reading “Review: Chess, Union Theatre”

Review: Steel Pier, Union Theatre

“Men and me are like pianos – when they get upright, I feel grand”

Steel Pier is one of Kander and Ebb’s lesser known works: its initial 1997 run (featuring Kristin Chenoweth’s Broadway debut) lasted just a few months and it is only now that the show is receiving its professional European premiere at the Union Theatre. In some respects, it is not hard to see why: David Thompson’s bland book lacks any sort of dramatic drive or interest, and Kander and Ebb’s score misses the deliciously dark edge that characterises much of their best work. But this highly energetic production from Paul Taylor-Mills has a dancing charm which lifts the entertainment factor.

We’re in Atlantic City in the midst of the Great Depression, where exploitative Mick Hamilton is running a marathon dance competition where the last couple dancing will win a cash prize. His secret weapon is veteran of such competitions Rita Racine, but she is tired and determined that this will be her last danceathon and her partner has failed to turn up. Stepping in at the last minute is mysterious flyboy Bill Kelly and as they progress through the contest, Rita finds her attentions and affections torn between these two men. Continue reading “Review: Steel Pier, Union Theatre”