As Salford-born Josie Rourke, director of this Manchester International Festival drama, observes “A play about chess sounds almost terrifyingly dull. A foot-square board. Three-inch pieces. Two players who aren’t allowed to talk to each other during games that can last weeks – hardly the ingredients for a rollicking drama.”

But “dull” is a description that could never fairly be ascribed to this riveting drama, yet another improbable success for MIF.

The MachineOf course, this particular chess match was hardly common-or-garden in the first place.  Matt Charman’s drama is based on the legendary 1997 showdown between Garry Kaparov, reckoned to be the greatest chess player who ever lived, and Deep Blue, a super-powerful computer, at least by the standards of the time (was it really less than two decades ago?). Hyped as ‘man versus machine’ against a background of frenziedly-orchestrated PR by the then-struggling IBM corporation, it was, amongst other things, a TV event and, crucially, an early internet sensation. Moreover, Kasparov (played by Hadley Fraser, evidently something of a star on the Les Mis. etc. circuit. He doesn’t sing here, phew!) was a mercurial, fascinating and driven figure from an impoverished background. During his career, he had won every major chess tournament and was ranked number one in the world for an unprecedented 20 years, an achievement that had involved ruffling more than a few feathers in the staid world of international chess. In fact, that’s just the sort of thing that’s pure catnip for writers, especially when his mother Clara (Francesca Annis) was, by all accounts, as fiercely determined and protective as the classic stage mother.

Meanwhile the primary architect of Deep Blue, one Feng-Hsiung Hsu (Kenneth Lee) was apparently just as driven in his own way, sacrificing love and affection for his goal of creating a machine that, as it turned out, could out-think a human being, ushering in an age where it has become almost unthinkable to live without microchips with everything. I should point out that the creatives make it abundantly plain that this “is a fictional account and should not be understood as biography or any other factual account”. My personal guess would be that the Feng-Hsiung Hsu strand of the story is a tad more speculative, especially the thwarted love story.

Nonetheless, the drama still has to overcome the fundamental fact that an actual chess game isn’t that riveting to watch, especially for an audience made somewhat soporific by the soaring temperature. Charman has hit upon the ingenious solution of having the play’s audience become the audience at the record-breaking telecast, recreating the slightly frenzied atmosphere that’s the lifeblood of live television, complete with commentators (including comedian Phil Nichol as Mandy Dinkleman, apparently, and disconcertingly, channelling Fred Willard as Best In Show’s Buck Laughlin) and breakaways, with live and recorded action on giant screens hovering over the chess board and protagonists.

Back stories skilfully punctuate the six-stage match too, making this a surprisingly brisk and bracing piece. It’s going on to New York’s Park Avenue Armory after this run (as is the Massive Attack/Adam Curtis show and MIF 11’s The Life And Death Of Marina Abramovic). Manchester should be proud that it’s still the place where ambition like this can be encouraged and supported before the rest of the world gets a look-in.

Review by Kevin Bourke


What: The Machine

Where: Campfield Avenue Arcade, Manchester

When: until July 21, 2013