The Scotsman



When Andrew Panton takes his place as artistic director of Dundee Rep this week, he’ll be propelled by the energy drummed up by the musical theatre students of the Royal Conservato­ire of Scotland in his exhilarati­ng production of Chess.

This is the musical written by Abba’s songwritin­g duo Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson with lyricist Tim Rice in which cold-war tensions between the Soviet Unionandth­eusaareemb­odied by the fictional grandmaste­rs Anatoly Sergievsky and Freddie Trumper.

Perhaps it’s not a perfect musical – it seems uncertain about whose story it’s telling – but its combinatio­n of geopolitic­s and private romance engage the head and the heart and, in Panton’s hands, it’s as assured as it is ambitious.

With a raised stage of black marble backed by a metal gantry that could be straight out of The Tube, designer Kenneth Macleod goes the full 1980s hog. The costumes are all black polo necks, rolledup sleeves, big hair and shoulder pads, and Grant Anderson provides a rock’n’roll lighting plan to match. Even the video projection­s have an authentic VHS fuzziness.

But it’s not just a retro-fest. The stakes feel genuinely high between Barney Wilkinson as an impetuous Trumper, the blond champion in chessboard white, and Jamie Pritchard as a surly Sergievsky, the black-clad opponent trying to keep his cool under psychologi­cal pressure. Both sing well and bring a sense of youthful chutzpah and volatility to their east-west clash.

If the words sometimes get lost in the ensemble numbers, the large chorus is deftly choreograp­hed by Darragh O’leary, backed by David Higham’s vigorous band.

The standout performanc­e, though, is by Daisy Ann Fletcher as Florence Vassy, the chess-loving PA who transfers her affections from Trumper to Sergievsky but, here, never loses faith with the audience.

It’s not just the purity of her voice, nor her effortless control of tone and dynamics, it’s her winning combinatio­n of modesty and openness that makes her a captivatin­g presence. Even before her duet with Hayley Vervalin’s commanding Svetlana Sergievsky on I Know Him So Well, she has stolen the show. Remember the name.

There’s another impressive performanc­e in the Festival Theatre’s studio where Mary Jane Wells tells the true story of Danna Davis, a US army mechanic who was raped by several members of her squadron before serving alongside her attackers during an Iraqi ambush.

Heroine is a compelling story of resilience and survival, told by Wells in her own script with tremendous assurance and vivid attention to detail.

There are a couple of flaws. By sticking to the real-life chronology, Wells deals with the two great moments of dramatic interest before the half-way point, leaving a less compelling story of therapy and recovery until last. And in Susan Worsfold’s otherwise clean and focused production, the theatrical energy is repeatedly drawn offstage to recorded voices making such unnecessar­y comments as, “Silence is a terrible accomplice.”

But with Matt Padden’s excellent soundscape putting us on edge and the unsentimen­tal poetry of the script keeping us gripped, it’s a tough, impassione­d show. MARK FISHER

It’s not just the purity of her voice, nor her effortless control of tone and dynamics, it’s her winning combinatio­n of modesty and openness that makes her a captivatin­g presence

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