Tony Flook : Surrey Mirror

“Chess” was first made available for non-professional performance as long ago as 1994. Although it took nine years for it to make its debut at The Harlequin, The Opera Club’s five star production was well worth waiting for.

“Chess” has a multi-layered story – the battle between American and Russian masters on the board, their personal fight over the same woman and, behind it all, the ever-present manipulation by the two superpowers in pre-glasnost times. One of the most rewarding plots in musical theatre is matched by the quality of its score. The Opera Club’s presentation, directed by Gillian Jarvis and with musical direction by Angela Barker, brought out the best of almost every facet.

The three leads all immersed themselves in their roles and coped well with the often difficult songs. Carol Hunt, Florence, the woman who switches from one lover to another brought feeling to ‘Heaven Help my Heart’ and balanced ideally with her partners in several duets. Frederick, the American chess player, is an interesting acting role as well as a challenging singing one. Kevin Stuart made him initially unattractively arrogant before showing his more human side. The transition was helped by his soul-searching ‘Pity the Child’. Chris Whitebread, Anatoly the Russian, sang with authority, coming to the fore with the emotionally-charged ‘Anthem’ and, as with the other principals, ensuring the success of his duets.

Alastair Lindsey-Renton and David Pond made key supporting contributions as the opposing puppet-masters whose interests eventually co-incide. David Hooker looked suitably enigmatic as the Arbiter but did not fully stamp his authority in his defining solo. Claire Padbury made a welcome late appearance as Anatoly’s abandoned wife, for the show’s best-remembered hit, ‘I Know Him So Well’.

Dancing and movement, choreographed by Vic Ruocca, matched the quality of the rest of the show. The evocative ‘One Night in Bangkok’ was memorable, as was the grouping in the tableau introducing it.

There’s a dilemma with “Chess”. The orchestra in this powerful rock opera deserves to heard in its own right, especially if it’s as good as this one. This does, though, make it difficult to achieve perfect balance with the on-stage performers and the one major problem with the show was that too many words were drowned, particularly noticeable in the driving, full cast numbers.

Little, though, could detract from the overall excellence of the production, which showed local theatre at its best.