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A CurtainUp London Review
Original review by by Lizzie Loveridge
Seeing Dealer's Choice for the first time and long having been a fan of Closer, my only regret is that Marber hasn't written anything more recently for the stage. I know he has been involved in some adaptations and some film scripting, but his original writing for theatre is so witty and incisive that I hope he may be inspired by theatre again.
The first act is set in the kitchen of a restaurant in London. All the staff are anticipating the weekly poker game held in the basement after the last diner has left the restaurant. The group are threatened with the loss of three of their regular players. One is at his father's funeral, another, Sweeney the chef (Ross Boatman) can't afford it and needs the money to keep his promise to take out his daughter the next day and the restaurant owner's son, Carl (Samuel Barnett) says he hasn't the money. Mugsy, the waiter (Stephen Wight) is looking forward to the game and hoping to raise £1000 to convert some unusual premises in the Mile End Road into a restaurant of his own. Stephen, the restauranteur (Malcolm Sinclair) is determined to hold the card game. His son Carl is in debt to a professional poker player Ash (Roger Lloyd Pack) and introducing Ash to the weekly game may get them both out of a hole. The second act is set in the basement round the card game. Frankie (Jay Simpson) the wine waiter dreams of going to Vegas and cleaning up on the professional poker circuit. No-one can resist even the simplest of bets — the toss you for it, heads or tails, the all or nothing risk.
True Dealer's Choice is about the addiction to the game but it is also about fathers and sons and power. The relationship between Carl and his father Stephen is strained to breaking point. Mugsy, the East End lad is so straightforward that Stephen compares him with expensively educated Carl who tries to hide his gambling habit from his father. Ash has taught Carl how to play and funded his first year and so is almost fatherly towards him. Marber says that when he wrote it, it was from the perspective of the difficulty of the son, "now it strikes him as being about the complexity of being a father." Interesting is it not, how even the playwright's latest experiences can change the pitch of his own play?
Poker seems to be largely a male pursuit (poker players like Victoria Coren are the exception rather than the rule) and this is an all male cast. The game promises not just a game of cards, a chance to win or lose but also the camaraderie of male companionship. When Mugsy loses his money, Carl knows that paying back the money he owes him will keep Mugsy in the game and the game going. It seems that everyone will stay until they have lost all they have. By the end of the game, these players haven't just lost their stake, they have lost their dreams as well.
The performances are absolutely first class. Simon Wight as the cheeky chappy Cockney is a breath of fresh air. Even during the serious game he is animated and takes us on a roller coaster of win lose emotion and comedy wearing his lucky, Hawaiian shirt which is as loud as his personality. Ross Boatman is a RADA trained actor and incidentally one of the top five professional poker players in the country as the sad, tortured Sweeney. But I was particularly taken by Roger Lloyd Pack's jaded, deadpan Ash. His timing, artfully slow with long pauses as he disguises his true identity is masterly. He is not afraid to let the joke play very slowly and then to make the switch from high comedy to full tragedy. Malcolm Sinclair has the least sympathetic character and I was shocked by the way Stephen manipulates his son into agreeing to play. "If you don't play, I don't see you." The ultimate gamble — a terrible blackmail — of a desperate man.
The sets work well. The working restaurant kitchen has a few tables to the fore of the stage laid for dinner and where Ash can sit as a diner. The second half focuses on the green baize. In between scenes is thrilling, rhythmic drumming music which adds to the excitement and anticipation.
But the absolutely best thing about Dealer's Choice is Marber's brilliant script. Gems like "Some can stand the heat, others stay in the kitchen" are worthy of Oscar Wilde. I liked the scene where Carl and Stephen argue and simultaneously, so do, slightly upstage, Sweeney and Frankie. Enter Mugsy whom they all turn on. The repartee between Mugsy and Stephen is very, very funny and the tension between Carl and Stephen is real and painful. When Carl says to his father, "Why does it have to be so emotional? Why can't it be like you're a bank and I'm a customer?" we understand why the parent may be annoyed. It says in the programme notes that the show's director, Sam West used to play poker with Patrick Marber. I expect that actors can be rather good at poker because they can teach their bodies to deceive. This excellent production of a smashing play deserves a full house every night.
Note: Tickets are now on sale for the Menier's Christmas production of La Cage Aux Folles which will star Douglas Hodge and Philip Quast. The show previews from November 23rd and some shows are sold out already.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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