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Christmas Concert Coincidence by Alex Toll



Just lately, I frequently seem to be suffering from 'Remarkable Coincidence Syndrome'. As far as I know it doesn't exist in any psychologist's 'list of weird things that happen', but it really ought to. The latest example of this happened on the way to the theatre, or to be precise, in it.


The fact that the revived musical 'Chess' was playing a 5-day run at the Theatre Royal in Norwich seemed to have escaped most of the chess-playing fraternity of Norfolk. To my mind this was unforgiveable, having seen and enjoyed the production in the late '80s in Oxford, after its inaugural London run and also in Dereham and Lowestoft! With music by Benny and Bjorn from Abba and more than a little help from Tim Rice (lyrics), the musical features some great songs including the smash hit 'I Know Him So Well'. This duet was number one in the UK for four weeks in 1985 when released as a single by Elaine Paige (as Florence) and Barbara Dickson (as Svetlana), who laid down their vocals separately and never met during the recording of the song. This event remains in the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest selling UK Chart single ever by a female duo.


However, I've digressed. It's a great show and I for one wasn't going to miss the opportunity to catch up with the latest incarnation. Tickets sold like wildfire at the Box Office and it was totally sold out by the time I had determined to go. Fortunately an extra matinee was arranged for Weds 1st December, which turned out to be heavily populated by, err, retired citizens '“ including me! I was joined by Dave Le Moir and his wife Sue and my mum (her Christmas treat!). Plans went well; we met up on time, without incident and settled into our seats, nicely centralised in the upper circle. It was then that the Remarkable Coincidence happened. Five minutes before the performance was due to start, there was a slight kerfuffle to my right as a short, bearded gentleman was ushered to the vacant seat next to me. He seemed vaguely familiar. Once he had de-robed and settled in his seat, it was then that the penny (sorry, shekel!) dropped.

He is a chess-player, a famous chess-player and easily recognisable. I have known him as a personal friend for the last 30 years since I first attended the British Championships in 1981. We recently lunched together in Canterbury during this year's British Championships. Sitting beside me was none other than Stewart Reuben, arbiter and Candidate Master amongst many other things. He even lists a quick-play draw with the immortal Bobby Fischer in 1963 on his chess CV!

Alex Toll (left) with Stewart Reuben (centre) and David Le Moir  

I knew that Stewart had met Tim Rice a few times and in 1982 had arranged for Karpov and Tim to eat at the same table during a dinner engagement! He also provided this game fragment which appears in the musical now on tour.


Byre v Reuben, London Schools League 1957
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Bb4  4.e3 0-0 (diagram) 5.a3 Bxc3 6.bxc3 c5 7.Nf3 b6 8.Bd3 Bb7 9.0-0 Ne4 10.Qc2 f5 11.a4 g5 12.Rb1 g4 13.Ne5 Qh4 14.Nxg4? fxg4 15.g3? Ng5 1-0


'For the show I continued it to 16 gxh4 Nh3 mate. Black goes off and does a soliloquy before playing mate. A little unrealistic! White would have resigned of course in real life without waiting for the mate. A fragment from this game also appeared in Tales of the Unexpected 'The Greatest Chessplayer in the World' - Stewart Reuben.


As it happened, Stewart also had an advisory role in the revival, with a credit in the program notes as 'Chess Master'. Shockingly, although the players made their moves and pressed the clock 'de rigueur' there was no sign of any score sheets. Stewart had advised the director accordingly, but the chance of 'too much clutter on set' had seen this normal chess protocol dismissed out of hand!

The lights dimmed and the performance began. As with most revivals, a couple of songs had been removed, notably the extravagant opening number - 'Merano' (venue of the Korchnoi-Karpov 1981 World Championship) and 'the Arbiter's Lament' '“ to Stewart's chagrin! 'The Story of Chess', charting the game's development worldwide was logically inserted at the beginning of the musical rather than left to the end as in the original production. The action all took place on or around a 5x5 square grid on a raised plinth which was lit from below. Why not 8x8? I guess that would have meant a bigger wage bill for the chess-piece cast and less room on the stage.


And what a supporting cast! Multi-talented, they were often required to dance, sing and play their instruments simultaneously. At one point the double bassist actually played her instrument lying on her back, mirroring the moment when the pieces on the board were scattered to the floor by an infuriated losing player.


Their costumes were alternately all black or all white, with no small S&M overtones '“ slave harnesses and leather in abundance. Lots of flesh was on show throughout the raunchy production, especially so during the Act 2 opener 'One Night in Bangkok' '“ very aptly named!


All this excitement caused an audible muttering (wow!) amongst the mature audience, but surprisingly no old dears were carried out for resuscitation! The two male pole dancers left nothing to the imagination and the male and female leads did everything but actually copulate whilst lying in an erotic clinch, stage front. Such excitement! 'Ooohs and 'aahhs' rang around the theatre, more action than most of the audience had seen in many a year!



I was beginning to wish I hadn't brought my slightly prudish Mum, especially when the brash, vulgar American Grandmaster 'Victor Trumper' let out two very audible and unnecessary 'F' words, one in each act!


Despite this the packed audience gave the cast a tremendous ovation at cease of play; to my mind the operatic Russian anti-hero 'Anatoly Sergievsky' (Daniel Koek) had the best voice, though the heroic Bette Midler look-and-sound-alike Florence Vassy (Shona White) ran him a close second.


But a big mention from me for the bare-chested, moody, enigmatic shadowy figure of the Arbiter (David Erik) who ghosted around the stage, glowering Twilight / Buffy-like in a marvelous red-lined vampiric cape. He didn't seem to have too much control over the chess shenanigans, (JC!) but you wouldn't want to meet him on a dark night. Hang on, what am I writing - most of the old dears bloody well would!

Bottom line, musically I don't think it was anywhere near as strong as the original production, partly because the supporting cast weren't 'miked-up' like the leads, so most of their lyrics were lost in the general hubbub. But as I knew them inside out, I just lapped up the spectacle and the imaginative set-pieces. Go see if you can, it's doing the rounds until Christmas.

© Tollmeister 2010




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