Nobody can say that Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of Abba can’t write a song and their 1984 concept album-turned-musical is full of good numbers, a couple of which were big chart hits. Directed by Laurence Connor, this major revival boasts some wonderful performances. Tim Howar brings a powerful rock sound as the maverick chess master Freddie Trumper, Cassidy Janson and Alexandra Burke are both fantastic as the female leads, and there’s impressive work from Phillip Browne and Cedric Neal as the men behind the scenes at a chess tournament that pits the USA against the USSR. The star of the show, as the Russian player, Anatoly Sergievksy, who defects to the West, is undoubtedly Michael Ball. Giving an impressively understated performance while belting out the numbers shows a performer of upmost confidence and technical skill. Ball is the master here, even if this chess game isn’t quite worth playing.
With music for the orchestra, the main theme, played during matches, is beautiful but adds little tension to an already wafer-thin story. There just isn’t enough in Richard Nelson’s book to hold attention, despite the backdrop of the Cold War and machinations of the Russian delegation. Connor tries hard with a barrage of video screens that ultimately only prove distracting. But the biggest problem is the writing for many voices. The ENO’s own chorus adds prestige to the event, but they seem lost – underused and with Tim Rice’s lyrics barely audible. As chess travels the world (well, Merano and Bangkok), attempts to add local colour end up pretty risible and Stephen Mear’s choreography surprisingly lacklustre. It all has to rest on the love triangle between Anatoly and the women in his life. There are moments when the cast, especially Ball, make this work, but the whole piece feels so slim that it’s more like a game of draughts.
Until 2 June 2018