Pawn

Created, written, and performed by students from Oxford University, Queenside Productions new musical Pawn is an impressive, if imperfect, piece of new student writing that, whilst not perfect, is still an interesting window into a peculiar period of time.

The script does a very impressive job of establishing the motivations, relationships and backstory of our two chess rivals in its hour running slot whilst never feeling rushed or cramped

Focusing on the infamous 1978 World Chess Champion final between Soviet Golden Boy Anatoly Karpov and stateless defector Viktor Korchnoi, the musical charts the strange series of events that plagued the bitter confrontation including, hypnotists, blueberry yogurt, mirrored Sunglasses and pirate flags, all while the reputation of Korchnoi, and the safety of his family still held in the U.S.S.R., lies on the line.

As with many musicals the subject matter at hand is not one that seems to cry out for a singing and dancing stage adaptation, but here it works surprisingly well, avoiding the usual pitfalls that pieces of new writing often fall into. The arrangements are interesting and varied, and the lyrics, for the most part, are memorable, witty and do their job in progressing the story and giving a further insight into the psychological state of our characters whilst still bringing out the humour within the scenes. The script does a very impressive job in fact of establishing the motivations, relationships and backstory of our two chess rivals in its hour running slot whilst never feeling rushed or cramped. The cast show great talent with wonderful singing voices that easily reach the highs and lows required by the arrangements, whilst playing off and reacting with each other creating incredibly amusing moments. The greatest of these moments is a musical number where Korchnoi’s drunkard second fantasise about a life of luxury if only they defected to the soviets.

Despite all this, the show still feels shaky in parts, the choreography at times feels stiff and does not flow with the music and at several points the singers are drowned out by the band meaning that some of the lyrics are rendered inaudible even to those sitting in the front two rows. On top of this the plot at times has trouble settling on a tone: quite a lot of the show is very comedic and even cartoonish which makes attempts at sincerity or serious drama lack the resonance they need to have impact. The ending too is incredibly jarring, breaking the realism that play had built for itself so far, and entering conspiracy theory levels of speculation as to the events that shaped the end of the tournament.

These issues prevent the show from realising its full potential, but there is still enough here that proves enjoyable and clever; anyone with an interest in the subject should definitely head along to see it. 

Reviews by Joseph McAulay

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The Blurb

Chess is a game shrouded in mystery and no match was more mysterious than the 1978 World Championship Final. Why did one candidate offer to play under the Jolly Roger? Why did two Filipino drunks get whisked out of the local jail to act as special advisors? How did blueberry yoghurts enter the equation? And who was the elusive hypnotist, Dr Vladimir Zukhar? Pawn, a new musical created by students at Oxford University, tells the extraordinary true story of the bitterest and strangest chess match of all time.

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