Ravens at the Hampstead Theatre review ***

Ravens: Spassky vs Fischer

Hampstead Theatre, 18th December 2019

I can see why Tom Morton-Smith would have alighted on the infamous chess match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in 1972 in Reykjavik. There are a ton of tomes on the subject and, after all, if it was good enough to spark the imagination of the ABBA boys …..

A proxy for the Cold War, then at its height, the clash between two ideologies, the “chess machine” Spassky up against the “maverick genius” Fischer, maybe the greatest player of all. No wonder the world was enthralled by the contest in a way that chess has never repeated. Added to which was Fischer’s erratic personality, he was never formally diagnosed, but he left the US, dropped out of competitive chess for two decades after winning this World Championship, got into legal scuffles, and devoted much of his time to vicious anti-Semitism.

Plenty of scope for drama then. TM-S’s smash hit Oppenheimer, which the Tourist, annoyingly, never saw, it coinciding with his peak poorly, so please someone revive it soon, similarly dealt with heightened personal drama set against the backdrop of big geo-political stuff. Other earlier plays have also successfully ploughed the same furrow.

So why didn’t it quite lift off then? Well the action is concentrated on the hall in which the match took place and various ante, hotel and other rooms around this. No faulting the way in which Jamie Vartan’s design, Howard Harrison’s lighting, Philip Stewart’s composition and sound, Jack Phelan’s video and, especially, Mike Ashcroft’s movement all combine to bring animation and excitement to the various confrontations, between and within the two “teams”, and between Spassky and Fischer during and outside the game. All overseen by Annabelle Comyn’s rhythmic direction. The two lead performances are also vivid and credible, Ronan Raftery as the self-contained but somehow melancholic Spassky, and, especially, Robert Emms as the aggressive Fischer. He has a lot more “personality” to play with, drawn out in some striking scenes on the telephone to the voice of Henry Kissinger (Solomon Israel) and his Jewish mother Regina (Emma Pallant). The rest of the cast, (wisely opened up a bit gender wise as I am guessing the reality was almost entirely geezer), don’t have too much opportunity to delve into character though Philip Desmueles has a decent crack as the German chess arbiter Lothar Schmid as does Buffy Davis doubling as the US team, bumptious head honcho Fred Cramer and Bobby’s mentor Lina Grumette.

T M-S’s dialogue too is incisive, and light on forced exposition, though it can’t quite escape chess-y banter, and all of the controversies of the match are rehearsed, notably the bizarre requests and counter-requests that tried the patience of the stoical Icelandic organisers and which was borne of mutual paranoia, notably from Bobby. My favourite was the argument over the chairs.

Like I say it is a cracking story. But not quite a cracking play. For the problem is that, however good the staging and the text, this is a tale of repetitions, which diminish in their return to the audience across the near 3 hours of the play. The scenes may differ, and are, to repeat, entertainingly executed, but don’t really move the narrative on. And, of course, we know the ending. Which means the political and psychological context needs to be explored in more depth than here. We get a sense of the financial and ideological stakes, the way in which Fischer’s mind games undermined a Russian team with an eye on their own government’s reaction, (though Spassky was avowedly apolitical,) and an insight into Bobby’s own, damaged, neuroses, but nothing that really surprises, provokes or disturbs.

My guess is that, having focussed on bringing the “facts” to kinetic life, by the time T M-S went looking underneath the play was already “done”. It might have been more interesting to step outside the detail of the match itself and start elsewhere, in flash-back from Bobby’s later life maybe (though I see that is pretty cliched). The imagined scene between Bobby and his Icelandic bodyguard Saemundur Palsson (Gary Shelford), which lends the play its title, is perhaps a pointer to want might have been of TM-S had left the facts behind.

The Wolves at the Theatre Royal Stratford East review ****

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The Wolves

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 26th October 2018

…. or 3 stars if you would prefer the opinion of LD which may be more relevant since she should have a greater affinity with the subjects of Sarah DeLappe’s novel debut play. The SO similarly enjoyed the production but was less enthusiastic than the Tourist. Thus proving that association with the subject/object in theatre may not always be the best indicator of potential satisfaction.

It was very heartening to see a full, and young, house at TRSE drawn in, I would guess by the subject, and by the reputation of the play. I have remarked before on just how attractively Nadia Fall’s first season as AD at the TRSE is shaping up what with this, The Village just gone, and The Unreturning (by Anna Jordan and produced by Frantic Assembly), Equus (from English Touring Theatre) and August Wilson’s King Hedley II (with Lenny Henry), to come.

So what’s to like about The Wolves. First off the subject. 9 diverse young women who are part of an indoor soccer (that’s football to you and me) team in middle, middle America. Second the dialogue. Their animated conversations centre on what is important in their lives. School, families, relationships, futures, politics, emotions, well-being, fears, frustrations. With 9 characters across 90 minutes, each carrying some specific trait relevant to their age and gender it was probably too much to ask that they become fully rounded individuals, but I certainly wanted to hear them. We laugh with, not at them, adult perspectives are peripheral, and the specifics of identity, obstacle and dilemma are not rammed down our throats. Not wives, not daughters, not girlfriends, not objectified, not victims.

This the play, with one minor exception, sails through the Bechdel test: there are other new plays emerging which featured strong, determined young women, but they are still few and far between. At least it would sail through the test if the women were named. For Sarah DeLappe has deliberately eschewed giving the women names, instead they refer to their kit numbers. This, together with the fact that each scene is played out during their warm-ups ahead of their competitive games, complete with movement guided by Ayse Tashkiran and ball skills courtesy of West Ham, (no comment from this Spurs fan), creates an echo of the military boot camp at the outset of a war movie, as Sarah DeLappe intended. Without of course the violence and toxic masculinity.

Rosie Elnile’s set, artificial turf enveloped by bright green inflatable walls, is striking, though this and the bright lighting and abrupt sound of Joshua Pharo and the Ringham brothers, brings a harshness which detracts from the musicality of the movement and dialogue. There is no connection to a world out there, (their grasp of global geo-politics is deliberately restricted), not a problem for yours truly, but this is I think what left LD a little perplexed. There is a plot of sorts, new player turns up to unsettle the equilibrium of the team, and a twist at the end, but even a director of Ellen McDougall’s imagination, cannot quite prevent it from feeling a little contrived and tacked on.

Now I am a shocker for identifying the authenticity of accents. I fake a bit of Mockney to make myself feel more “working-class” which is truly pathetic, and deep down, you can still hear the Devonian roots in me straining to get out, but I am about as boringly Home Counties as it gets. So, for the first couple of scenes, I was convinced that the cast was the real deal having come over en masse for the run. Nonsense obviously, made more so when it dawned on me that I had seen several of the actors before: Seraphina Beh (Leave Taking and Parliament Square at the Bush), Nina Bowers (Twilight at the Gate), Rosie Sheehy (Escape the Scaffold and The Hairy Ape) and Rosabell Laurenti-Sellers (at the Guildhall where she trained). They, and the rest of the cast, Annabel Baldwin, Lauren Grace, Francesca Henry, Shalisha James-Davis and Hannah Jarrett-Scott, were just so convincingly American, thanks to Michaela Kennen’s voice guidance. Preserving the balance of the ensemble, whilst sketching out the characters and, to paraphrase the mighty Harry Redknapp, “f*cking running around a bit”, is an exacting challenge but each and every one of the cast rose to it.

So for me a success because I got to see into an unfamiliar, yet recognisable, place in a witty and dynamic way. Maybe less interesting to LD precisely because it is familiar, in which case the fact that the story doesn’t really go anywhere, and the various “secrets” that are revealed about each of the young women are never properly developed, was more of a drawback. Team sport as metaphor for life is beyond cliche but Ms DeLappe has smartly subverted the trope by omitting victory or defeat. I will be very interested to see where she goes next.

 

The Sweet Science of Bruising at the Southwark Playhouse review ****

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The Sweet Science of Bruising

Southwark Playhouse, 16th October 2018

Now that MS, BD and LD have turned into exemplars of their youthful generation, (I am their Dad so may be biased), we no longer watch Doctor Who. However with Malorie Blackman, Ed Hime, Pete McTighe and Vinay Patel (An Adventure at the Bush Theatre review ****) on the writing roster, and Jodie Whittaker as the good Doctor, perhaps I need to rethink.

Even more so since the writing team also comprises Joy Wilkinson, who is the pen behind The Sweet Science of Bruising, which is, if you get your skates on, still playing at the Little at Southwark Playhouse. Joy Wilkinson first wrote the play in 2007 but it has taken until now for it to be stage thanks to the enlightened team at Troupe theatre under Ashley Cook, (who takes on three of the minor males roles here), responsible for Rasheeda Speaking, Dear Brutus and The Cardinal (The Cardinal at the Southwark Playhouse review ***), and the theatrical factory that is the Southwark Playhouse.

The reason it has taken so long to come to life is that it demands (here) 10 actors for 15 named parts. Thus making it an expensive proposition to stage. Still here it is, and what a fine, and novel, play it is. Its subject is the world of women’s boxing in pre-suffrage, Victorian times, 1869 to be exact. Its message is powerfully feminist. Four women, earnest nurse and would-be doctor Violet Hunter (Sophie Bleasdale), clever Irish street-walker Matty Blackwell (Jessica Regan), suppressed and abused upper class wife Anna Lamb (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and gutsy Northern pugilist Polly Stokes (Fiona Skinner), a real life boxer, come to the boxing club of “Professor” Charlie Sharp (Bruce Alexander) to seek fame, fortune, validation, redemption and political awakening.

Joy Wilkinson cleverly intertwines their personal stories with the oppression and prejudice that women faced from men and society in Victorian times, with boxing, it transpires, the perfect metaphor to realise this. It proceeds energetically across 26 scenes. Director Kirsty Patrick Ward, designer Anna Reid and, especially, fight and movement director Alison de Burgh bring the spirit of time, place and spectacle alive. There are a few scenes where the message is a little shoe-horned in, as often happens when playwrights wish to expose their scholarship, but this is more than compensated by the genuine connection Ms Wilkinson creates to the stories of these four (yes four, how good is that) women.

There is an awful lot of drivel shown on stages much bigger than this, with much less to say and much less entertaining. This really should find a bigger home, or, if there is any justice, some shrewd TV type should commission Joy Wilkinson to adapt it for the telly.