Theatre review: The Chess Player, OSO Arts Centre

An emotionally charged one-hander that follows one man’s bid to survive in the hardest of circumstances

Richard McElvain in the Chess Player, interpretation of the story is all the more disturbing in a world where the Far Right is once again raising its head.

Richard McElvain in the Chess Player, interpretation of the story is all the more disturbing in a world where the Far Right is once again raising its head.

 

Based on Jewish Austrian author Stefan Zweig’s novella, The Chess Player follows a prisoner in a Nazi jail struggling to stay sane while shut away in solitary confinement with no books, cigarettes or conversation.

His unlikely lifebuoy comes in the form of a stolen chess book allows him to lose himself memorising the many outcomes of a chess game. Despite never having played a game of chess, has the prisoner become the best player of all time?

His chance to test his skills comes after he escapes his captures and en route to safety in Buenos Aires finds himself in the middle of a chess tournament featuring the great chess masterminds.

Despite the mind soothing power of chess and his new found freedom, the prisoner remains hovering on the brink of madness. Will he survive a game against the greatest player of all time? Or will it trigger a descent into a darkness that there will be no escape from?

Written, performed and director by Richard McElvain who takes on all the roles with great zeal and emotion, breaking the fourth wall at times by placing himself in the story and interacting with the audience and occasionally with Larry Buckley whose sound and light production brings a further edge to the production.

The back-and-forth between McElvain’s characters serves to heightened the madness and claustrophobia of a man who escapes one prison only to find himself trapped in his own mind. The final chess game reaches an intense climax of insanity that leads to two choose-your-own-adventure style endings, one based on Zweig’s own death from suicide and another playing out the novella’s original conclusion.

Post-curtain call Elvain explains the show is about theatre and art, how it means nothing and everything at the same time. Art lifts us and holds a mirror to us and the world we live in. Without it, we are the like the prisoner in his cell, clinging onto an emptiness with no purpose.

The Chess Player | OSO Arts Centre, SW13 | Until May 26 2018

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Comedy review: Sarah Kendall, Soho Theatre

Entertaining and engaging, Sarah Kendall’s observation on bad luck/good luck is an amusing, poignant look at our lot in life

Sarah Kendall3 - credit Rosalind Furlong

Sarah Kendall’s One-Seventeen deals with the theme of luck, based on a Chinese proverb about what constitutes good luck/bad luck, where one can be disguised as the other. Kendall explores how our lives can change in an instant, and how we may not even be aware of that moment’s significance until later when we take back and unravel the strands.

One-Seventeen isn’t your typical comedy show. There is a sad seam that runs through the hour-long show that moves between time and place as Kendall weaves together tales from her past and present.

This isn’t a show that provokes belly laughs, although there are plenty of funny moments. It is a show that is as poignant as it is humourous, where moving moments collide with amusing undercurrents – for example how her brother reacts to a real-life – nearly fatal – car crash as if he were in the Dukes of Hazzard (a favourite show of the siblings).

Kendall is at her funniest when doing impressions of her hugely pessimistic mother who in contrast to her more pragmatic, star-gazing father, sees everything as doomed. That, and the stories of her nouveau riche neighbours in Australia who bonded her quarrelling mum and dad better than any marriage counselling.

Star-gazing is a theme that runs through the show, from reminiscing of standing on the lawn in Australia pretending to see Halley’s comet, to fast forwarding to her life today in south London as a married mother of two, and her father, the other side of the world, asking her as she stood on her tiny London patio what stars she could see.

Kendall’s great skill is as a storyteller. Each of these individual tales is engaging and absorbing, told with genuine warmth and a captivating cadence. There’s an argument that perhaps each anecdote works better as an individual story than as an all-encompassing take on life and our place in it.

But overall, One-Seventeen is a beautifully crafted show that is as touching as is it funny and moves away from comedy clichés to take a wry and thought-provoking look at how fate trips us up with stealth.

Sarah Kendall | On tour across the UK | Until 20 June 2018

Theatre review: Great British Mysteries?, Soho Theatre

An offbeat comedy two-hander that is wonderfully silly but lacks a little substance

GREAT BRITISH MYSTERIES_2

Will Close and Rose Robinson in Great British Mysteries?

 

An amusing, slightly chaotic and quirky comedy, Great British Mysteries? sees Olive Bacon (Rose Robinson) and her untrusty sidekick Dr. Teddy Tyrell (Will Close) clumsily attempt to solve a series of the UK’s most compelling unsolved crimes and suspicious sightings.

Together they host Great British Mysteries? a documentary that sets out to shine a light on such enigmas as Jack the Ripper and the Roswell alien landings without such pesky things as evidence and facts. They are the Michael Gove and Boris Johnson of dubious documentaries.

The first half is a greatest hits of their greatest mysteries, as Olive and Teddy stumble through their ‘findings’ aided with video projectors and some real-time ‘rewinds’.

The humour comes from the pair’s clumsiness and ineptitude that at first produces some riotous laughs from the audience. Close and Robinson are sparky performers and elicit great comedy currency from their repertoire of funny faces and comfortable chemistry.

But this enjoyable and undemanding comedy began to flatline a little as the second half – a full-length unravelling of the Loch Ness mystery – rolled on. Unlike the famous lake, Great British Mysteries? lacked depth, the irreverent humour never really developing from the baseline silliness.

There are still moments of excellent comic timing and clever flashes of what could be with a bit more character development and structure. Taking a plunge into comedy’s darker depths would have sustained the monster laughs into the second half.

Great British Mysteries | Soho Theatre | Until 19 May 2018