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The Gambit
Published on Monday, 08 July 2013

4 starsReviewed by Richard Stamp
The Old Clubhouse
Run ended; next appearing at the Greater Manchester Fringe Festival, 17-20 July

Across the road from the opera house, in front of a grand bay window, stands a plain wooden table. On the table lies a chessboard. 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. Nick Pearse is more measured as the visitor Garry, who plainly moves in high places yet at times appears an unlikely tribune for the common man. Pearse achieves a delicate mix of aggression and amusement towards the highly-strung Anatoly, but flashes of anger and a profound sense of weariness reveal Garry’s own deep-seated pain.

There are many fine points to appreciate as the conflict develops. Playwright Mark Reid packs a lot of deep thought into his script, which explores both the isolation of a genius and the repressed agony of a fractured friendship. The latter emotion which will be all too familiar to many who watch this play, 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.

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 Garry Kasparov, the Soviet grandmasters who monopolised the world championship for almost 20 years. The use of real-world figures drives much of the plot (Kasparov, for example, ran for the Russian presidency), and at times I felt added unnecessary complication to what’s already a very detailed story. Reid’s densely-worded script asks a lot of its audience; trimming a few of the side-plots might leave more space to appreciate its core message.

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 still a little work to do. In the meantime, if your tastes incline to thoughtful theatre, I can recommend this play when it travels down the road for a run at the Greater Manchester Fringe. I’ll remember it as one of the unexpected treats of summer 2013.

This is a revised version of an article published at the Brighton Fringe in May.  We reviewed The Gambit for a second time in Buxton, and have updated our opinion to reflect changes to the piece between then and now.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Buxton 2013.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.