Choreographed and directed by Craig Revel Horwood, this production of Chess is light on politics and big on love

Chess first came to London’s West End in 1986, with music by über-talented ABBA songwriters Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson and lyrics by Tim Rice. It tells the story of Freddie Trumper, the American competitor for the International Chess Championship, his Russian rival Anatoly Sergievsky, and the woman who comes between them, Florence Vassy.

Tim Rice was inspired to write Chess after watching the real-life drama of the 1970s chess match between the American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky, when the capitalist US and communist USSR still regarded each other with deep mutual suspicion. Rice set his musical a few years later, during the height of the Cold War.

This production is choreographed and directed by Craig Revel Horwood. Despite now being best known as a prickly judge on Strictly Come Dancing, Revel Horwood has enjoyed a distinguished career in theatre. He originally made his name as a dancer, before moving into choreography and directing.

For this revival, Revel Horwood prefers to keep the power politics in the background, focussing more on the central love triangle. In the programme he writes, ‘Obviously the themes of chess and the Cold War are still in this production, but I don’t want too much background plot; otherwise, it makes all the stories difficult to tell clearly.’

However, he still believes in not pandering to an audience. ‘I believe [they] should work harder – and not be told what to think.’

Chess sits apart from other musicals in that it features a staggering range of musical styles, from 1980s synth pop to rock, chamber music and operetta, and it’s arguably the ABBA boys’ most ambitious endeavour to date.

Anyone expecting another Mamma Mia! will be disappointed, however. Chess is as far removed from the happy sing-along blockbuster as any musical can get. It is a musical with virtually no unsung dialogue, requiring the audience to concentrate carefully. 

Revel Horwood’s sexed-up production is dazzling. He has chosen to use a relatively new development in musical theatre – that of the ‘actor-musician’ – to tell the story. There is no orchestra. All the actors play musical instruments on stage, whilst singing and dancing. It makes for an innovative and bracing approach.

However, using actor-musicians presents a problem for stage designers in that the actors are unable to move multiple props around because their hands are full. Here, Christopher Woods utilises video to circumnavigate the challenge, and it succeeds.

The three main leads, played by James Fox, Daniel Koek and Shona White do a stellar job. Fox’s American accent is occasionally dodgy, but this is a minor quibble, given the strength of his overall performance. He perfectly encapsulates a man at his wits’ end, feeling betrayed by those closest to him.

Australian Daniel Koek has a beautiful tenor voice, and whilst well-known numbers such as ‘One Night in Bangkok’ and ‘I Know Him So Well’ are guaranteed applause, the most powerful number of the evening is Koek’s ‘Anthem’, a moving, nationalistic love song.

The stand out performance, however, goes to Shona White as Florence Vassy, the woman at the centre of the love triangle. White's voice is astounding, and she commands the stage with the ease of a seasoned pro.

Fresh from winning the Best Touring Production at the annual What’s On Stage awards, this is a chance to see an invigorating retake on a powerful and thought-provoking musical.

Chess runs at the Grand Opera House until February 26.