Te Auaha, Tapere Nui, 65 Dixon Street, Te Aro, Wellington

05/07/2018 - 14/07/2018

Production Details

Wellington Footlights

The Cold War comes to Wellington 

“No one can deny that these are difficult times – it’s the US versus USSR…”

The Cold War arrives at Wellington’s brand new theatre, Te Auaha this July in The Wellington Footlights Society’s production of Chess.

Originally conceived by the masterminds behind ABBA, this epic musical involves a politically driven Chess series between American and Soviet grandmasters at the height of East-West tensions.

Laura Loach, recent winner of the Dame Malvina Major Aria Finals (Christchurch) is directing Chess.

“The themes are still relevant today, with the escalating tensions between the US and Russia… while the characters play out a political drama, they’re still just humans making impossible decisions.”

“Things aren’t black and white, and at the end I want the audience to question who’s side they’re on.”

Chess follows the success of Wellington Footlights’ 2017 Heart and Music festival, which included William Finn’s A New Brain and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, original revue The Rising Sun and the locally written and produced Flatline With Two Sugars.

Te Auaha, Tapere Nui, 65 Dixon Street
5-14 July 2018 (no performances Sunday or Monday)
$25/$30 (groups of +10 concession price.)

Anatoly - Will Collin
Freddie - Kevin Orlando
Florence - Ellie Stewart
Svetlana - Kate Boyle
The Arbiter - Eugene Wolfin
Molokov - Karen Anslow
Walter - Mike Bryant

Abigail Helsby, Catherine Gavigan-Binnie, Chris McMillan, David Bowers-Mason, Ed Blunden, Henry Shum, Jack Clarke-Parker, Laura Gardner, Margaret Hill, Renee Iosefa Neil, Stacey O'Brien, Tania Dreaver, Vishan Appanna  

Stage Managers - Patrick Barnes & Natasha Thyne
Costume Designer - Ashleigh Dolling
Props Manager - Ruby Kemp
Lighting Designer - David Cathro
Lighting Assistant - Abigail Helsby
Lighting Operator - Michael Farmer
Sound Engineer/Designer - Patrick Barnes
Set Design/Construction - Laura Loach and Andrew Loach
Sound Assistant - Kirsty Moir
Publicity/Marketing - Alex Rabina
Production Manager - Natasha Thyne
Front of House Manager - Dominic Taffs   

Theatre , Musical ,

Performance beats plot with artistic energy and magnetism

Review by Dave Smith 06th Jul 2018

I first encountered Chess in the mid 1990s per medium of a perfectly adequate imported touring version. I simply hated it. The singing was to a good professional standard but the show seemed to undermine its characters, lacking both humanity and plot coherence.

I put its earlier overseas success down to clever timing and the shrewd ability of is pop-oriented creators to ride the crest of a synthetic anti-Soviet wave that would subside along with the Reagan administration. The penning and songwriting was, after all, achieved by ABBA veterans Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson along with Tim Rice of Superstar fame. (Many at the time thought this was a practical joke.) Fast-forward 20 years and Chess is still showing a strong pulse. It has endured several offshore makeovers although its crude internal plot flaws remain.

So what? This Footlighters opening is a performance triumph and a grand night in theatre. It generates massive enthusiasm in the audience and burnishes the idea that belief in the power of theatre and one’s own take on the product can move hearts and minds and transcend sporadic material. 

The game of chess is, as we know, not one for the faint-hearted. It distils the worst features of human beings. It is remorseless. It requires ‘pawn sacrifices’ and the knight to ungallantly ‘take the queen’. Treachery is at its black (or white) heart. Lewis Carroll used chess characters to devastating effect in tormenting Alice where the pieces are people possessing a frighteningly cruel political system all of their own.

In time, chess became the obvious prism for the Cold War and reached a sad low point when Bobby Fischer dealt to Boris Spassky in Iceland then did a Keith Murdoch. This incarnation is one where the pieces/people are controlled remotely. You can defect but ‘they’ still own you. You can talk to the colour TV producer stateside but he may be lying. 

So, the musical’s plot revolves around two superpower chess matches. The one in the first act is set in Merano in Italy, the other in act two occurs in Bangkok. The Te Auaha venue is perfect for these confrontations: one at the table the other everywhere else. The stage is oblong and smallish, surrounded by a rear mezzanine while there is a high and long gantry/ walkway on either side of an auditorium that rears dizzyingly up from stage level (not unlike the old Millard stand at Wellington’s Athletic Park). The large orchestra nestles snuggly above, the ensemble often files in and out along the gantry in Greek chorus mode. The audience sits in conditional judgment of the central cast. Several stained glass windows surround the stage and its black and white square games area. They each highlight a king chess piece. Chess is religion; scientology maybe. 

The ambience therefore is splendidly insightful. It makes the absolute best of a paper-thin plot. Freddie the American world champ is to take on Anatoly the red Soviet challenger. The former is a degraded version of John McEnroe, the latter a more sensitive and sympathetic person with a wife and two children.

Freddie is in it for the dosh, ergo the media circle him like sharks to pillory him over his placing the match in jeopardy over his crass money demands. Anatoly gets his initial lumps from Freddie’s manager Florence, a Hungarian refugee whose life was broken by the Russians in 1956 when Hungary was cruelly crushed by Soviet tanks.

Freddie loses the match bigtime (for an even bigger fee) and Anatoly promptly defects. The erstwhile US sharks instantly move in to taunt him about the family he has carelessly left behind. It is all plot-development-by-press-announcement then we learn, by the same blunt means, that the Russian has defected to be with Florence. There is way too much telling and not enough showing in this musical.

Anatoly thereupon leaps up to defiantly sing ‘Anthem’ which is musically powerful but intellectually bereft (“My land’s only borders lie around my heart” – yeah right). You don’t often finish a first act with a hand-on-heart solo with the chorus standing there watching but Tim Rice does. 

In the second act Freddie helps his former foe to regain his chess manhood and Anatoly hops back home, leaving Florence to the untender mercies of the CIA posing as chess media organizers. Work that one out. (No don’t!) 

Success here is nearly all in the performance. I early on glean the impression that the overall cast are really up for this. They tear into it with a beguiling relish that transcends the heartless nature of much of the material. They give personality.  

Chess is both pseudo operatic and faux symphonic. There are few spoken lines. The balance between the backing and the connecting recitative is crucial. In the first half it all wanders badly in places. Later it comes impressively right. It never though interferes with the show-stopping numbers like ‘Anthem’, ‘I Know Him So Well’ and ‘One Night in Bangkok’. These are stylistically poles apart but they do the drama job. If the words went AWOL in the general noise the basic emotions all came through. 

The central cast are good and are bettered only by the superb ensemble who simply nail it from go to whoa. Kevin Orlando’s Freddie is querulous to a fault and believably redeems himself later on by poking it to the Russkies via a back alley.  Will Collin as Anatoly carries off the task of being both Machiavellian and convincingly vulnerable.  Ellie Stewart’s Florence (Freddie’s ‘in house’ Girl Friday and probably some other days) manages her treacherous shtick with poise and melodious flair.

Kate Boyle takes on the bartered wife’s role of Svetlana with scant help from the script. She performs beautifully in the vaunted duet alongside Florence where the keys words “Perfect situations can go wrong” are heard. Mike Bryant’s Walter exudes smooth commercial and political duplicity in all the right places.

High marks, though, go to Eugene Wolfin as the chess match Arbiter whose stentorian voice of doom and corralling of the players securely sets the underlying tone. Karen Anslow as Molokov (previously a male role) is a power-dressing Bolshevik apparatchik (Florence’s counterpart) who contrives to be both appealing and repulsive in the same line. She frequently holds scenes together through excellent diction and imperiously chunky body language. 

Tops marks go to the ensemble and the 17 piece (that word again) orchestra under its director Michael Stebbings. Between them they conjure up jollity, dread, antagonism, fear, humour, visual colour and a few memorable arabesques. Some might call it clever distraction I call it solid direction, hard rehearsals and good costume design. It gives the show a spine it doesn’t really have.

Chess has experienced brutal highs and lows across the globe. It does not automatically generate warmth – quite the opposite. But this production has worked up a degree of artistic energy and magnetism that is hugely to its credit.

Sure-footed director Laura Loach, in her first directorial role in musical theatre, has even worked out a new philosophy-of-thumb that universalizes the Chess theme in order to drag it away from the limiting gulag of the eighties. Ironically, we are in our present days experiencing an upsurge of world admiration for the Fifa World Cup in Russia that is so full of colour and happy generous Russian folk while over in DC Trump is crude, cynical and dangerous.  

So Chess is now right up there philosophically as its theme is universal rather than specific to the Cold War years. It is now the ongoing theme that there’s nowt funnier than folk. The dinosaurs hung in there for 80 million years while we look like screwing up fatally after a mere 50,000. Mankind’s only enduring contribution to the planet is Murphy’s Law. I’ll buy that, though millions in Eastern Europe won’t.   


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