Chess: Political Pawns

The following article was first published in the April 2018 edition of Viva Lewes magazine:

It’s 1984. US president Ronald Reagan is cracking jokes about bombing Russia. There’s political tension between West and East. The CIA and the KGB are spying on each other. And Chess, an allegorical musical about international rivals, has just been announced by the unlikely triumvirate of Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus and Tim Rice. Their concept album heads into the top 40 and the subsequent West End show opens in 1986.

Three decades later, the musical is about to be revived on the London stage… but not before Lewes gets its own production, courtesy of the LOS Musical Theatre company. Andy Freeman, who’s directing the local version, allays any worries about the plot. “You don’t need to know about the game of chess”, he tells me. “If someone’s coming along, expecting to be confused by ‘Knight to Bishop’s Pawn Three’ or something like that, they’re not going to be.” Although the story is packed with comparisons between chess playing and political machinations, it’s actually a love story connecting American chess whizzkid Freddie Trumper, his assistant Florence Vassy, Russian champion Anatoly Sergievsky and the family he’s left at home. “It’s a love triangle that pretty much spreads into a love square, if you can have such a thing”, Andy explains. “Underlying everything is the partisanship of the Americans, of the Russians, and the puppet-masters pulling the strings of their players.”

Back in the 1980s, the Cold War was a genuine threat to peace and the Berlin Wall was dividing Germany. Does Chess still have relevance to the 21st century? “There is always something going on somewhere in the world where one country is playing off against another”, Andy says. “Big countries, big organisations, they still use their athletes, their chess players, whoever, to their own ends.”

The music has also aged well, thanks to the partnership of Benny and Björn – best known as the guys from ABBA – and the storytelling of lyricist Tim Rice. “There’s some cracking stuff in it, some beautiful music”, Andy explains. “It’s picked up the flavour of the 80s but there’s other stuff there that would sit happily in any musical written today. Some of the choral pieces are almost classical.”

As well as singing the praises of the performers, Andy is equally enthusiastic about Liz Allsobrook’s “stunning” set design. “We’re doing it as a black stage, which is one of my trademarks, and we’ve just got white cubes that we will move around – half a dozen big ones, half a dozen little ones – they can be beds, they can be tables, they can be a desk in a TV studio or whatever. For the first time we also have this whizzy backdrop that is a flexible LED screen.”

And what about that rival production from English National Opera? “I shall go and see it. See if they can get anywhere near ours. We don’t feel threatened!”

Chess runs from 10th – 14th April 2018 at the Town Hall.