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Because what the Net really needs is another person sharing his uninformed views
Theatre review: Dealer's Choice 
12th-Oct-2007 10:29 am
Prideavatar
I've been to some unlikely places to see plays in the past, but for me personally Southwark Street, where my first-ever job was, isn't somewhere I ever thought I'd go for an enjoyable evening. It's a pretty soulless street full of offices, but a couple of years ago the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre opened there and quickly acquired a good reputation - I've already seen two of their shows that have transferred to the West End (Sunday in the Park With George and Little Shop of Horrors) and it seems to have an unusually high budget for a studio theatre. But on the topic of me having worked there in the past: Never assume that you remember a short-cut that you last used ten years ago, especially if it involves going through a hospital; those places are mazes.

I do miss onigokko's journal, but maybe it's just as well that he's not blogging anymore, because I got a front-row seat, which meant I was a few inches away from Samuel Barnett. The jealousy might have killed him. Although if by any chance Joey is reading (and has survived) he's not really my thing but he does have very pretty eyelashes. Oh and nice eyes too, which are in the same general area of his face.

So, 11 years on since I did my directing course at University and this is the second time this year that one of the plays I workshopped has been revived in London. While Equus was probably my most successful attempt, Dealer's Choice fell pretty flat, largely because I don't know much about poker and neither did my cast, and even though I chose a scene with very little poker in it, it was enough to distract from the emotional stuff they were supposed to be dealing with. So instead of critically coming to a production of something I felt I'd dealt with well myself, this was more me revisiting something I hadn't managed to pull off, and seeing how someone with more of a personal investment in the material dealt with it. Note how I've already done three paragraphs and not yet mentioned the production I'm allegedly reviewing. See, this is why the papers aren't breaking down my door begging me to be their theatre critic.

Luckily Samuel West, who directs this revival, is a poker player as are some of his cast, and in fact played in the regular games which partly inspired Patrick Marber to write Dealer's Choice. While a love of cards may be important to actually produce the play, it's by no means needed to enjoy watching it, as poker is just a backdrop to the characters and their story. Stephen is a restaurant owner who runs a regular game for his employees every Sunday night in the basement. All are, to a lesser or greater extent, addicted to the game, but Stephen's son Carl has become a serious gambling addict and lost thousands. Unable to pay back Ash, the professional gambler he sees as a mentor, the 4 grand he owes him, he invites Ash to the game so that he can hustle the money he needs to pay off his own debts to much bigger fish.

West's production is assured, and the first half which is almost entirely comedy is hilarious. Stephen Wight quickly gets the audience on his side as Mugsy, the waiter who may really be more addicted to losing than anything else, and who refuses to see that he's the mug at the table, despite it now being his nickname. He's got a good rapport with Ross Boatman as Sweeney the chef, and Jay Simpson as Frankie the other waiter, who have a stronger hold on their gambling habit, but not as strong as they think they do.

In the second half the game gets under way and the relationships come to a head. Roger Lloyd Pack is menacing as Ash, but if Samuel Barnett is trying to shake off his History Boys persona he doesn't manage it; he never really looks or acts the part of a compulsive gambler, and his Carl is more of a little-boy-lost than someone who has brought his troubles largely on his own head. The standout in an overall strong cast is Malcolm Sinclair as Stephen. Seemingly the most in control he probably has the most dangerous addiction, happily encouraging his son and employees in their own expensive habit even when he knows it's becoming a problem for them. Sinclair does a subtle job of going from a cool veneer to breaking apart as the far-reaching consequences of his small weekly game come back to haunt him. In one way or another, everyone at the table is really the mug.

Tom Piper's design is pretty robust for such a small stage. The one thing from the original production that the Menier couldn't stretch to was a revolve, which in the second act which involves all the actors sitting around a table meant you didn't spend the whole time looking at the same person's back. Luckily in this staging I was sitting behind Sweeney, who I remembered was the first to leave, so I soon got a clear view (West also has his actors stand up and move around a lot so it doesn't become visually monotonous.) Terry Davies' sparsely-used music has a nicely oppressive quality, and the intimate location and thrust staging make you feel very involved in the action.

Patrick Marber is now best-known for Closer and is an Oscar nominee, but Dealer's Choice was his first play, and when I first saw it I knew of him as the co-writer and co-star of Knowing Me Knowing You. This revival was partly prompted by the boom in poker since online gambling became big, and is in fact sponsored by a casino website. The popularity of the game may have changed in the 12 years since this premiered, but the story feels no less timely. This isn't faultless but for both a hilarious night out and a more serious, intimate story, the two disparate sides fitting together seamlessly, this is well worth a look.

Dealer's Choice by Patrick Marber is booking until the 17th of November at the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre.
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