THE PIECES are set and the players have moved into position for one of the biggest productions South Hill Park has seen all year.
Chess, the toe-tapping musical written by Tim Rice and Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA, came storming into Bracknell on Tuesday night for a five-night run courtesy of the East Berkshire Operatic Society.
Directed by Margery Jackson, the musical bursts into life with the opening number The Story of Chess hitting you will full force, letting the audience know from the get-go that this will be a high production evening.
Featuring an abstract, monochrome stage design, the production stays true to its 1980s roots, and the clever use of space to differentiate between scenes is really effective. The costumes (the shoulder pads!), hair and make-up are all reminiscent of the decade that fashion forgot, but don’t steal focus and make this a ‘nostalgia fest’ in any way.
Set during a Cold War-era chess tournament between American and Russian opponents, the play has plenty of political overtones which are integral to the story, but it is done in a way that is fun and entertaining, and prior knowledge of the time is not wholly necessary. The American, Freddie, is bold, brash and cocky, while his Russian counterpart Anatoly is reserved and focused, and refuses to be swayed by the glitzy trappings of the high profile tournament. While both sides are certain of victory, a love story emerges between Freddie’s long-suffering girlfriend and manager, Florence, and his rival. The tournament is muddied by politics, racism and love affairs, but can everyone make it out in one piece?
Putting on such a high-profile production such as Chess is a risky gamble, as there are bound to be fans of the original in the audience, and some pretty big shoes to fill onstage. Kelly Gates does a superb job of stepping into the legendary Elaine Page’s shoes to play Florence, and her duet with Jennie Leopold (Svetlana) for ‘I Know Him So Well’ was received with rapturous applause.
The suave, cool and collected Arbiter who oversees the tournament proceedings is propelled into the spotlight by Rutendo Mushambi. His voice is strong, his dancing is on point, and the ensemble performance of ‘The Arbiter’ showed off the high quality choreography.
Fusing modern dance styles with classic ballet comes easy to EBOS, with duo Mette Isaksen and Courtney Fleming stepping up to the plate with their captivating performance as the game is played out. Their striking forms and perfect lines left the audience entranced and begging for me, which was gladly offered later in the act.
The star of the show has to be Daniel Strong as Anatoly, whose voice most certainly lives up to his name. Delivering a performance worthy of the Royal Albert Hall, his powerful vocal cords are really something to behold and had the audience on their feet for ‘The Anthem’ at the close of Act 1. Strong is superb: moving and uplifting yet understated and modest, he really helps to take the quality of the performance to the next level.
Chess is performed at the Wilde Theatre, South Hill Park until Saturday. For tickets call the Box Office on 01344 484123 or visit www.southhillpark.org.uk/events/chess-the-musical.
- EBOS will be holding preview nights for their upcoming shows this month.
On Monday, November 7 at 8pm the company will hold a read-through of My Mother Said I Never Should, while on Tuesday, November 15 at 7.30pm they will be holding a dance workshop for Boogie Nights. Anyone interested in getting involved in either production should email firstname.lastname@example.org.