Edinburgh Fringe 2015

The Gambit

Rampant Plays

Genre: Drama

Venue: Greenside


Low Down

“Twenty-five years of betrayal played out on a chessboard. The lies, deceit and anger erupting in an epic clash between the defining Grandmasters of the 20th century. In the tradition of plays such as Frost/Nixon and Copenhagen, award winner The Gambit features a thrilling battle of wits between two titans of the game with opposing outlooks on life, each other and the game itself.”


This is a well written and very competently acted dialogue between two friends, reunited after twenty-five years, at the instigation of one of them. World-famous chess players. Yet have they lost control of the game?

The sheer heat of the venue did affect this performance. I’m beginning to realise that performers coming to some fringe venues in Edinburgh need to undertake the equivalent of tropical heat acclimitisation training that some sports people go through.

A story unfolds – a story of friendship, betrayal, trust and mistrust, and what happens when we let things fester. Can some things ever be resolved? Do we reach stalemate?

This is an intense dialogue play requiring total focus from both performers and audience. It was easy for our attention to flag in that heat and kudos to the performers for holding attention so well over the near hour. In a few places, the energy flagged slightly. I felt that parts of the dialogue that would normally be crisp and tight, flagged and loagged just a little. It was only occasional but it did undermine the punch of the piece overall. It’s a dense script, ideas are packed in and attention from the audience is really necessary or you’ll lose the thread. As such, this is a bit of collaborative theatre. The writer, Mark Reid, assumes we’ll be with him all the way.

This is a hugely intelligent play, overlapping many themes, considering time, the metaphor of a a rules-based game – chess, social life and wider physical reality.

Convergence on the board, on the game; emerge – the unpredictable, the serendipitous and the ambiguous nature of the world.

Two once-friends, meeting again after twenty five years at the institigation of one of them. Garry and Anatoly – yes, those world famous chess players, more harmed than healed by the game – the game of chess, the Game of Life. A piece in which they makes their moves with and against each other and find no healing synergy. The game is one of opposition, there can be no sharing of our separate pieces, not unless we change the rules of the game.

Staging is simple: a table, two chairs, a chess board and pieces, a bottle of vodka. Director, Matthew Gould directs with economy and extracts both pain and dark humour from the script as well as making some of the philosophical and political ideas accessible in the mouths of actors Nick Pearse (Garry) and Ben Rigby (Anatoly). There’s some very effective tension created between the two – in a silence, in a look, or in their stances on the stage. The two actors are believable characters and the acting is skilfully understated and powerful.

The writing sometimes feels as if it weighs too heavily on the characters – too many clever, neat thoughts pushed through the mouths of the two on stage. I feel less could me more in places. But it is realised extremely well on stage. This is intelligent work, interpreted carefully and with precision – physically and vocally by the two actors.

I enjoy this, stayed with it, and find its questions, its pain and its darker moments oh humour staying with me. Some of that darker humour could elicit more laughter. There is hard tragi-comedy in there. It may have been the heat of the space, or the pace, but I feel there’s opportunity to sharpen the comedic element.

And, no, you don’t need to be s lover nor player of chess to appreciate and be captivated by this sharp, dark, two-hander. What it might just do is hold up an uncomfortable mirror to your own life, if you see your life,  and play it, as a game of strategy against others – your family, your friends, colleagues and strangers.