London Coliseum – until Saturday 2 June 2018
Reviewed by Lisa Harlow
You cannot avoid the era in which this original concept album was penned. The 80s never liked to play things small. The staging and retro effects were certainly of the time.
The US/Russia Cold War story line was also arguably very of an era, as was any preoccupation with chess. The world stage remains largely unchanged, however, with superpower egos and with one of the musical lead characters named Freddie Trumper (Tim Howar), this revival is rather timely. And without forgetting it comes hot on the heels of the announcement of the reformation of ABBA.
I confess immediately that this musical album was one of my childhood favourites. This performance had a lot to live up to. From the charming ‘Merano’ at its start to the very end of Act II, my heart sang with every line.
There were wobbles. I wasn’t persuaded by some of Michael Ball’s (the Russian Anatoly Sergievsky) vocal effects near the start but by his final song of Act 1, Anthem, he was emphatically triumphant. This was the emotive singing he was searching for and maintained. Some of the national cliche stereotyping was uncomfortable. The enormous screens beaming the lead action was overpowering at times and I found myself confused which to follow. The dialogue and events that piece together the songs could be more understandable to flesh out why key events happen and the motives of the key characters, and the extra song written for Alexandra Burke (Svetlana) was obviously inserted to flesh out her role and justify her appearance.
But the star of the show was undeniable. The score, written by the boys of ABBA and Tim Rice, is of such high quality, time has done nothing to dampen or detract from it. With the ENO chorus and the orchestra set into the staging up on high, the musical performance was outstanding.
Cedric Neal (the Arbiter), who stood in after Murray Head’s withdrawal, was charismatic and compelling. Equally, Cassidy Johnson (Florence) won my heart in her journey and drew my tears at times. There were waves of claps during songs toward the end as the audience’s appreciation boiled over in a fever. I was enthralled by the jaunty scenes at the British Embassy, and the choreography overall dazzled. The hits ‘One Night in Bangkok’ and ‘I Know Him So Well’ were of course show stoppers, but ‘Pity the Child’, ‘Nobody’s Side’ and ‘You and I’ were my particular highlights.
I floated out of the theatre still misty-eyed. Forget the whispers of ‘Relevance? Dated?’ I dare you not to be drawn in by the beauty of this music. One of the most heart rousing and enjoyable shows I have seen for a long time.
I have already booked my tickets to return.