I recently made a whirlwind trip to Sydney to catch a couple of shows where people I knew were performing. The first was Aladdin (a spectacular production that will be extensively reviewed) that featured two recent WAAPA graduates in the ensemble; and a community theatre production of Chess the Musical out at Bankstown. While I initially had no intention of reviewing either, the latter, to my knowledge, has not had any published reviews to date. That would be an unfortunate outcome. So while, in the name of full disclosure, I am friends with two of the leads I would like to redress that situation…
To be honest I didn’t know what to expect as I caught the train to Bankstown. I have adjudicated nearly 100 community theatre shows in WA over the last couple of years but had no idea what the standard might be like in Sydney. What I discovered is that going to a show in Sydney’s western suburbs is pretty much the same as any community theatre group in Perth. There were friendly front of house staff that immediately made you feel welcome; a raffle for a good cause (Beyond Blue); a cuppa and bickies at interval; a really interesting black box performance space with raked seating; and a talented and dedicated cast and crew who made the show come to life. Based on conversations in the lobby there was also a core of regular audience members and, I gather, quite a history to the theatre company. I felt right at home.
To the show itself and as the director Dennis Clements acknowledges in his programme notes, the Book is one of the most revisited in the musical theatre canon. Within the context of a Cold War, East meets West battle for supremacy as epitomised by the Chess World Championship is a far more personal battleground – two men competing for the affections of the same woman within the glare of the media spotlight and political machinations.
Those men are the Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Daniel Kenyon) who unseats the American Freddie Trumper (Charles McComb) as World Champion before entering into an affair with Freddie’s second, the Hungarian Florence Vassy (Sherry-Anne Hayes). As Anatoly subsequently defends his crown (having sought asylum in the UK) against a Russian rival with Freddie looking on now as a media commentator, things spiral out of control as his wife Svetlana (Whitney Erickson) becomes involved in political manoeuvring designed to force him to throw the match. At the centre of it all is Florence who is also callously manipulated by the hope that her father, thought dead in the 1956 political uprisings, might still be alive.
The first thing that strikes me is that the vocal ability of the principal cast is excellent. Kenyon displayed a superb voice, deep and expressive with power to burn that he used to stunning effect. His Anatoly was dark and brooding with a sense that the character’s pent up emotions could explode at any moment. That restless energy literally found voice and his singing was a highlight of the show.
He was well matched by McComb who played Freddie with rock star panache and sang accordingly. All leather clad attitude and sense of entitlement, the contrast worked well for the inter-personal drama and the larger themes each character embodied. It also was a smart set-up to drive towards another highlight – Pity the Child – where we gain insight as to why this character is such a jerk with an emotive performance by McComb that started slowly and built towards a moving crescendo.
Hayes plays the tricky role of Florence Vassy very well with a range of complex emotions on display. The character’s professional role is to keep these men in check during various stages of her involvement with them while ultimately getting tangled up in quite messy relationships. There is strength and even stoicism here but also vulnerability as Vassy’s father’s fate is a key concern. Hayes sings well and also allows the emotion of Florence’s predicament to resonate mainly through song. The duet with Erickson – I Know Him So Well – is a highlight. Erickson herself comes to prominence after the interval and even without checking the programme there was no doubt she had an opera trained voice. It is another impressive vocal performance with great power and clarity.
Of the secondary cast Ed Mafi made a real mark as a devious Alexander Molokov; Gareth Davis was an intense and almost Matrix-style Arbiter; while Tim Hawkins provided a good-natured and persuasive turn as Walter De Courcey. The 13 strong ensemble added vocal punch when required; comic relief, notably and hilariously in Embassy Lament; and texture (as various players such as journalists) to the broader East versus West conflict.
The centrepiece of the set was a raised stage where the chess matches took place with steps leading down to ground level of the black box space. Flats were staggered behind it that facilitated entrances and exits and to each side was an iconic depiction of the countries involved – Abraham Lincoln for the Americans, Vladimir Lenin for the Russians. Black and white checkered patterns were used as well in the set design.
The cast utilised the full scope of the space effectively and worked well together though there were times the vertical aspect of their movement up and down the stairs was a little repetitive. Surprisingly, perhaps the most well-known song from the acclaimed score – One Night in Bangkok – didn’t really work for me. It fell flat but then I suspect that stylistically it is somewhat glib and not as emotionally laden as a lot of the other numbers and therefore suffers by comparison.
This was a show I really enjoyed and was well worth the trek westwards (after the much longer trek eastwards!) to go and see. It would seem community theatre is in good hands in Western Sydney.