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 Funeral Director at the Southwark Playhouse review ****

The Funeral Director

Southwark Playhouse, 6th November 2018

The Papatango New Writing Prize, which kicked off in 2009, is the first and only playwriting award which guarantees the winner a full scale professional production, a share of the takings and a commission for a follow up. Whilst I missed last year’s winner Trestle by Stewart Pringle at the SP (my bad), the 2016 winner Orca by Matt Grinter, also at the SP, was one of the best plays I have seen in the past few years, Dawn King’s Foxfinder, which won in 2011, may not have been shown to best effect in its last outing but is still a very fine play, (https://athomehefeelslikeatourist.blog/2018/09/21/foxfinder-at-the-ambassadors-theatre-review/) and the 2012 runner-up Tom Morton-Smith went on to write the marvellous Oppenheimer for the RSC.

So The Funeral Director by Iman Qureshi comes with some pedigree. Which, by and large, it lives up to. It is a little too deliberate, the plot a little too pat in places, but it offers up opportunities for its four strong cast to portray strong, heartfelt emotion in the dilemmas that they face, which Jessica Clark, Tom Morley, Maanuv Thiara and, especially, Aryana Ramkhalawon, seized with relish.

Ayesha has inherited her Mum’s Muslim funeral parlour in the Midlands which she runs with her husband Zeyd. It is not an easy living but the couple get by and seem to be happy in the circumstances, having come together in an arranged marriage in their teens, even if Ayesha is reluctant to acquiesce to Zeyd’s desire for children. Their equilibrium however is disturbed when the visibly distressed Tom turns up at the parlour asking for his partner Ahad, who has committed suicide, to be buried. They turn him away, fearful of the reaction of their community if they agree. Ayesha then bumps into her close childhood schoolfriend Janey who has returned from her career as a lawyer in London to see her ill mother. From these two events, Iman Qureshi explores issues of sexuality in the context of Islamic faith, in what I think was a thought-provoking and sensitive way. 

Its themes are weighty, complex and relevant but the play has its moments of tension as secrets unravel, as well as some sharp comedy, along the way, and a couple of real lump in the throat exchanges. Amy Jane Cook’s set design, ingeniously wedged traversely, in the SP Little space, combines the reception/office (sofa, cushions, flowers) and business (gurney, sink, kafans) areas of the parlour, augmented by Jack Weir’s lighting and the sound design of Max Pappenheim neatly ties in to Ayesha’s unfulfilled singing dreams.

It would be pretty difficult to hide the quandaries that all four characters face inside a more subtle plot so Ms Qureshi wisely doesn’t even try. We can see where the story is headed but, with Hannah Hauer-King’s unmediated direction, and the heart on the sleeve performances, it shouldn’t matter to the audience. Arayana Ramkhalawon does such a fine job at showing Ayesha’s inherent strength that when her facade finally crumbles and she admits her real self it is genuinely moving. Maanuv Thiara’s Zeyd plainly loves Ayesha, is a decent man, and offers argument predicated on reason as well as faith to justify his stance. Initially Jessica Clark’s Janey feels a little too assertive but this is justified by her past. Tom Morley has less opportunity to convince as the bag of nerves, and angry, Tom. 

It is pretty clear to me that Iman Qureshi is more than capable of writing persuasive dialogue for her characters which carefully set out and explore their worlds. Maybe a little more of this and a less of the issue-heavy argument might yield an even more involving result. Mind you what do I know. I haven’t one a prize for anything other than accountancy. Which, literally, suggests the measure of this particular man.