A review of MPA’s CHESS: the musical
By graduating student Luke Madams
Wednesday the 14th June was the premiere of Chess, the School of Music and Performing Arts’ choice of musical for 2017. For those unfamiliar with the plot, it centres around a fictional championship chess game played between American and Soviet grandmasters, with music provided by ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson and lyrics by Tim Rice for the original 1986 West End production. There was certainly little to repel non-ABBA acolytes under Phil Hornsey’s musical direction, however, with Christ Church’s own musicians providing thoroughly well-executed accompaniment and accommodating the score’s varied instrumentation seamlessly (I can attest to hearing what I was sure was a sitar at one point in the show, and would be interested to learn the creative solution that went into achieving this sound since I am quite sure that the university does unfortunately not count a player of the instrument amongst its well-regarded student body).
What is most striking upon entry to the performance space is the set design by Lucky Bert, which, under Dr Jessica Beck’s direction, makes incredible use of an area that appears to be several times smaller when viewed unoccupied. Credit must go to the student design and build team who, with the assistance of professional set designer Cherry Truluck Halpin have pulled off an impressive feat. The choreography was appropriate and well-suited to the capabilities of the performers, and, despite being an opening night performance, at no point did I witness anybody on stage moving with hesitancy and allowing the audience to perceive the mechanics of the production. I felt at ease during the performance and was able to allow my attention to drift freely between the narrative and the broad visual displays.
The relation of said narrative to certain contemporary political affairs will be apparent to many audience members before arrival, recalled to the forefront of the mind with an array of soundbites taken from US and Soviet leaders on the topic of the relationship between the two countries, which was played over speakers upon entry to the venue. This ensured that this political relevance was never too far from the audience’s consciousness. Dr Beck states in the programme notes on offer that this theme, as well as her own status as a citizen of the USA, did—quite understandably—factor into the preparations for the show, and this ambition to place the production in the modern world can only be applauded. There is no need for any overt political remarks or gestures for the remainder of the show, however, with a number of subtle amendments to certain elements of the original staging instead doing all of the speaking without hindering one’s ability to indulge in Ulvaeus and Andersson’s enticing arrangements.
Being a first-night performance, technical mishaps were ready to be forgiven should they occur, and unfortunately for the cast and crew there was potential for their hard work and lengthy preparations to be outshone by an audio issue during the first half of the show as the feed from the live band was suddenly lost, leaving performers without their backing music and therefore without the cues that they require to co-ordinate their individual parts. In a truly awe-inspiring display, however, Mollie King, in her role as Florence Vassy, continued a cappella—employing the full force of her remarkable voice and keeping her choreography intact—with scarcely a heartbeat, and was supported by her chorus who were able to remain in time and collectively maintain their stage manner. The assurance with which they continued meant that I could not be entirely sure that what had happened was not in fact a part of the show, and I dare say that there were a number among us who were unaware that a problem had occurred at all until the announcement of a short interval by the production team. The audience rewarded the cast with rapturous applause, and this sudden and unexpected re-arrangement of the soundtrack served only to reinforce the sense of professionalism and work ethic with which the students at CCCU conduct themselves.
My overall impression was of a very well-rehearsed cast who had given the time to familiarise themselves with the details of the piece. The lead characters interacted well, and it was particularly pleasing to see Ugnė Dailidonytė – a student graduating this summer from the BMus Music programme – at home in an acting role and serving as good a figurehead for the interactions and collaborations that take place between all Schools in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities.
Tickets are available from this link, and the show runs nightly at 7:30pm until Saturday 17th June, with a matinee 2pm performance on the final day.