Upon entry to the theatre we were greeted with a minimal, but striking set, a few large chess pieces scattered across the stage with a large black and white checked door at the rear.
The show began with the Arbiter, played with force and precision by Gail Carpenter, explaining the history of the game, before being accompanied by the special chorus, to which a special mention must be given for their numerous character and costume changes. This opening number set a very high standard for the rest of the show to follow.
The full company joined with the cheer and joviality in ‘Merano’. Here we could see just how well the company had bonded, as every voice merged into one, clear unified expressive sound. The dance steps seemed almost natural and the company’s sheer joy at performing was infectious.
Soon after, we were introduced to the character of Florence, played by Sian Hopwood. The moment she hit the first note of ‘Nobody’s Side’, her first solo number, it became clear that she is a natural performer. Every note seemed to flow from her, flawlessly without any effort at all. Sian delivered a powerful, crystal clear performance of the song which she then carried on throughout the rest of the show, keeping the audience captivated until the very end.
But of course you can’t mention Florence without mentioning the character’s two love interests. The Russian, played by Wayne Carpenter and the American, played by Jon Hare. With a strong clear voice, Wayne was the perfect opposition to Sian’s Florence. His experience within musical theatre was obvious in this show, every word or action conveyed an emotion that we as an audience could not help but feel too and created perhaps the most believable character of the show. Jon had some very tricky notes to hit, and did so, perhaps not with ease but with great success all the same. The two actors looked, acted and sang very differently which successfully portrayed the contrasts in the characters to the audience.
Bob Southgate and Trevor Lowman completed the principle line up, both putting their all into their roles as the manipulative characters of Molokov and Walter respectively.
Taking a step back from the characters, perhaps one of the cleverest parts of the set design was the small digital screen present on the back wall. It was used not only at the beginning of new scenes to tell us where the action was taking place but also to display ‘news reports’ filmed previously by the company. It really added to the production as it created a sense of authenticity and innovation.
Another point of interest was the dance routines which seemed to be more complex then ones used in their previous shows. Everyone kept in sync and in step, whether it was the featured dancers in the cheerleading sequence or the company as a whole in ‘One Night in Bangkok’.
But it wasn’t all serious; the show had a fair amount of genuinely comedic moments. A scene which had the whole audience laughing was the one which saw the male chorus stumbling around the stage in a show of drunkenness which was not only believable but a good change of pace from the rest of the show’s darker tone. It was somehow made all the more funny to watch because of Adam Popplewell as Viigand, sitting captivated by his small chess set as the madness erupted around him.
When thinking of Chess one of the first things I think of is its most recognisable number ‘I Knew Him So Well’. Despite having heard many versions of this song, sung by the likes of Elaine Paige & Barbara Dickson and Idina Menzel & Kerry Ellis, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a fresh and interesting take on it. As mentioned before, Sian’s voice was powerful and clear, and when accompanied by Fiona Whittaker (playing Svetlana) who has a more operatic style of singing, something magical was created. The atmosphere in the theatre was electric and everyone seemed to have stopped breathing, caught up in this one unified moment.
A final note of recognition must go to Andy Prideaux, the company’s Musical Director, who took the members of BOS to new heights vocally and put together an amazing team to perform the complex soundtrack that was needed to emphasise and project the story and emotions of the characters within it. There were even some of the audience I heard during the interval debating whether there was actually a band or whether a CD was being played!
Billericay Operatic Society definitely appears to be on some sort of ascendance and it will be interesting to see how they interpret their next production, the very well-known and very different ‘Oliver!’ by Lionel Bart, which they will perform at the Brentwood Theatre in March 2016.