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The Gamblers

Nikolai Gogol
Greyscale/Dundee Rep/Northern Stage/Stellar Quines
Northern Stage

The Gamblers Credit: Viktoria Begg
The Gamblers Credit: Viktoria Begg

Not to be confused with the Dostoyevsky novel The Gambler, Gogol’s 19th century playThe Gamblers has been described as ‘unpleasant, inhabited by scoundrels that are not funny’.

It is atypical of this writer, propelled less by Gogol’s freewheeling and fanciful imagination, more by a meticulous plot construction, with the kind of denoument that has been compared to The Sting.

To be fair, the final revelations are slightly complicated and the characters rarely stray far from one dimension. But it’s pacy and performed with an accomplished energy by the female cast of six.

Female? Every character in the play was written by Gogol as a male and their ruthless competitiveness, deceit and willingness to outwit any other human being at the first opportunity might be seen by some as more in keeping with the male psyche. Centuries of aggressive domination have instilled such behaviour patterns in the male of the species, so this sudden transition is not entirely convincing.

Theatre though, can try anything, so why not have a go? And the resulting effectiveness is often surprising.

The plot revolves around a series of card playing scams carried out by a combination of characters whose surface bonhomie and sense of camaraderie belies their ruthless ambitions. They create brief gambling partnerships and groups, yet no-one trusts anyone here and survival and profit is all. Not a decent cove among ‘em.

The Theatre of Cynicism? Possibly, but Gogol’s impish instinct is never far beneath the surface and we sense him scoffing at the absurdity of our flawed human aspirations.

Crystal Clarke, Amanda Hadingue, Zoe Lambert, Hannah McPake, Emilie Patry and Emily Winter tackle the nine roles, backed by their occasionally playing of live Russian music.

Selma Dimitrijevic”s production (she has also adapted the original script with Mikhail Durnenkov) is played out on a stage bare except for a few changing room benches and all six actors are on view throughout, whether in the scene or out.

The biggest laugh of the evening is reserved for one character asking, “Bankers—are they all crooks?” It also reminds us that the play, though no masterpiece, does not date. The cast seem to have great fun which means we do too.

The bare set plus the fact that four separate companies have combined to tour this production to four venues (it opened in Dundee and Glasgow and Edinburgh follows Newcastle) hint at the cash crisis in which many theatre companies now find themselves.

Bit by bit, this ‘strength in numbers’ approach, while wholly understandable means a shrinkage in new productions overall, a creeping diminution in theatre output to which we may well all only awake when it is too late.

Reviewer: Peter Mortimer