Nick Hall: SZGRABBLE!

Sat 6th – Sat 27th August 2016

reviews

Grace Calvert

at 08:27 on 11th Aug 2016

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For years, spy movies have got it wrong. The ideological pissing contest of the Soviets and the West wasn’t played out at the Olympics or during the Space Race. It was through everyone’s favourite word based board game, Scrabble.

Nick Hall’s ‘SZGRABBLE’ is the story of Arthur, a spy from MI17 (that’s the Stationery Department to you and me) who is hand-picked to represent the UK in the 1981 World Scrabble Championships. As Hall explains, Scrabble was a great point of national pride in the USSR, and in crushing Russia’s finest master Scrabbleman MI6 seek to devastate the Soviet regime. This is Arthur’s task, presuming he can survive the journey through the iron curtain which – who knew? – apparently is an actual curtain. It’s a quick, sharp hour of comedy which is unfortunately let down by all too manic multi-rolling.

Hall’s writing perfectly satirises those Cold War spy film pastiches. The stern head of MI6, the Russian temptress, the spy and all-round Lothario who has gone rogue, are all muddled up in high speed chases and assassination attempts. The venue evokes this genre, with Hall clad in a black turtleneck and backlit against a severe white brick wall. It’s almost film noir, but with more gags about squirrels.

It’s a good script, and if the audience weren’t entirely convinced by the dance of the Scrabble boards which opens the show, Hall’s dad-like puns had them laughing by the end. Yet it is Hall’s performance that lets down the show. In a town that is this month flooded with brilliant comedic mimics, his impressions fail to impress. This becomes problematic when the pace of the show rises, as his accents and mannerisms are not defined enough for us to immediately recognise the rapidly shifting characters. Hall also has a habit of delivering his lines to the audience’s shoes, looking down and not out, and it becomes vaguely irritating to be unable to see his face.

Some of the jokes survive this but many are lost, and it’s a shame for what is a skilfully written and designed piece.

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Coreen Grant

at 09:44 on 11th Aug 2016

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If a one-man comedy called ‘Szgrabble’ set during the Cold War sounds strange, then the show – and the man himself – do not disappoint. Nick Hall puts on an energetic performance which is, at times, baffling, yet he pulls it off in an entertaining and often witty style. Taking a rather ingenious idea of switching the war-time chess and replacing it with scrabble, Hall runs away with the opportunity in a montage of (occasionally cringe-worthy) puns and caricatured spies typical of thriller novels. In fact, Hall cites the author John Le Carre as his primary source of inspiration, which provided a classic backdrop to his innovative concoction of history, action and comedy.

Although the intersecting plot lines and interchanging characters are disorientating at times, the acting in question makes up for the disjointed scenes. Hall creates engaging variety through a catalogue of voices, mime-like movements and accapella sound effects which bring his characters and scenes to life. Much of the successful comedy comes from the slapstick humour of interplay between Hall’s simultaneous roles. The actor seemed so completely absorbed and delighted in his work that despite the initially flat jokes, the unresponsive audience was soon chuckling reluctantly at the bad quips, and laughing unreservedly at the occasional moments of true wit.

The aesthetics of the production, although sparse, did not take away from its enjoyment. Using mainly a blank white wall, Hall is starkly juxtaposed all in black, accentuated by bright, harsh lighting which throws a tall, dramatic shadow behind him. This touch is particularly effective in emphasising Hall’s dynamic movements, and creating an atmosphere of intrigue and suspense which characterises the war. The impressionable visuals are complemented by Hall’s only fellow cast member, who accompanies the climatic moments with appropriately old-fashioned, theatrical music.

The pacing of this unique comedy is hectic, coursing through a storyline which covers a cross-continental journey and many near misses with death. Hall’s rapid-fire changes between characters only heighten the manic tone. The overall effect of his amalgamation of seemingly disparate elements – a narrow escape from mutually-assured destruction, and often ridiculous comedy – is altogether strange.

It is unclear whether there is an underlying message, perhaps a commentary on the stupidity of humanity, both on the level of simple comedy and nuclear destruction. Although certainly out of the ordinary, the mix sometimes clashes. Fortunately, Hall’s confidence and readiness to mock himself salvage these moments. ‘Szgrabble’ is best described as a satire with none of the cutting criticism, but much of the wit.

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