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The Gambit
Published on Sunday, 19 May 2013

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3 stars

At The Coach House (venue website)
16-19 May, 2:30pm-3:15pm, 6:00pm-6:45pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Warning: Contains strong language.
 Parental Guidance. Under-17's must be accompanied by an adult.

There’s a fittingly informal feel to the tiny theatre space tucked into the back of the Coach House; a true sense that you’ve just been invited into someone else’s home. The audience sits on mismatched chairs, clustered round a table. On the table stands a chessboard. And at the chessboard sits a man. He’s sitting silently, morose and distracted, waiting for a guest: an opponent he’s been avoiding for the last 25 years.

Our host is Anatoly, a man we quickly learn doesn’t see the world in quite the way the rest of us do.  He’s a single-minded genius – dedicated to the pursuit of chess – whose thoughts are governed by the movements of bishop, rook and knight, and who laments the fact that life isn’t lived by an equally predictable set of rules.  He and his guest were once friends, we discover, as well as sporting rivals.  But there’s been a great betrayal: a final showdown, some kind of collapse, a withdrawal for one or both of them.

Actor Ben Rigby puts in an exceptional performance as Anatoly, pleading and hectoring, leaning earnestly across the chessboard; still proud, but desperate to reach out to his one-time confidant.  At one point he launches into a soaring, half-crazed monologue – seemingly minutes on end – and I found I was simply captivated by every last word.  Sadly though, I wasn’t quite so taken with Nick Pearse’s portrayal of the visitor, Gary.  Gary’s demeanour stands in deliberate contrast to the highly-strung Anatoly, but even so, I felt that Pearse has dialled down the emotion one or two notches too far: it’s a passive and overly level performance, with little to punctuate the delivery or highlight the moments of conflict between the two men.

It’s a shame I never quite bought into Gary’s own sense of pain, because there are many fine points to appreciate here.  Playwright Mark Reid packs a lot of deep thought into his 45-minute script, which explores both the isolation of a genius and the repressed agony of a fractured friendship – an emotion which will be all too familiar to many who watch.  It is, I’d suggest, a specifically masculine storyline, and I occasionally winced in recognition of mistakes I’ve made in my own life.  But the biggest compliment I can pay Reid’s script is to remark that the play is 45 minutes long, consists entirely of two men seated at a chessboard – and I wasn’t for one second bored.

In a crucial respect, though, I wished that Reid had been bolder.  If you have a passing knowledge of the recent history of chess, you’ll very quickly recognise the two protagonists: they’re Anatoly Karpov and Gary Kasparov, the Soviet grandmasters who monopolised the world championship for almost 20 years.  But as Reid readily acknowledged in a post-show discussion, this play isn’t really about Karpov and Kasparov at all; the characters could equally well be British, or American, or entirely anonymous, and the central themes of the piece would still work just as well.  On the whole then, I wished Reid had given us entirely fictional characters, inspired by the two Soviets but free of the historical distractions which inevitably follow from using real-world figures.

In summary, there’s a lot of meat to chew over in this play; the value of friendship, the games we sometimes play, and the way we run from things which hurt us and end up hurting ourselves even more.  This has the potential to be a truly electrifying production – though before it gets to that point, there’s a little work to do.  In the meantime, if your tastes incline to thoughtful theatre, I can recommend a trip to the Coach House.  I’ll remember this play as one of the unexpected treats of my Fringe.

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