Dealer's Choice

Patrick Marber
Menier Chocolate Factory
(2007)

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At times, for someone who doesn't "get" gambling, Dealer's Choice can be the equivalent of coming across a long lost tribe in the jungle. The language is unintelligible and the rituals not only make no sense but seem totally perverse. At others, Patrick Marber's ability to build high tension and anatomise the male psyche overcomes every difficulty.

This play, which was first seen at the National in 1995, is ostensibly about a card school viewed through one night of poker. However, this is merely a metaphor for the masculine obsessions to win and lose and the inability to communicate and bond, let alone build long term relationships.

The play was an obvious choice for a theatre run by David Babani, better known in poker circles by the sobriquet "Bad Boy". He has lavished as much care on the production as he would a full house with a big pot to win, recruiting Samuel West to direct a cast that is led by Only Fools and Horses star Roger Lloyd Pack as a professional gambler and Samuel Barnett who was such a hit in The History Boys on stage and film as his protégé and stooge.

The first act introduces the six single men in a restaurant and its kitchen, cleverly designed by Tom Piper to allow simultaneous conversations to be seen and heard. This is part of the intricacy of a play that has the ability to feel like a piece of chamber music, so carefully is it choreographed, especially in a double scene where fathers argue with sons.

The inane Mugsy lives up to his name big time. He is an eternal optimist who is addicted to losing and, even worse, Stephen Wight's character shouts his stupidity to the rooftops.

The chef, Ross Boatman's Sweeney, can't say no and despite losing his family to gambling keeps going, while his big-talking son Frankie (Jay Simpson) is going the same way, though he doesn't see it.

They are compared and contrasted with the rubbery-faced Malcolm Sinclair playing wealthy restaurateur Stephen, a seemingly tough man who likes his Sunday night game because it gives his life order and allows him to control the staff - and his son, Carl. Stephen is the one who seems furthest from addiction but the final scenes throw even this small certainty into doubt.

Barnett's young Carl is a hopeless case. He is heavily indebted and addicted to the dishonesty that becomes the perennial gambler's closest friend. He it is that introduces the poker-faced Ash, a professional gambler played to perfection by Lloyd Pack, into the game, knowing that he will clean out them all and cause serious distress to his father and friends.

The second half takes place over the card table and Marber ensures that the tension builds nicely to a final pot which will decide who wins and who loses. In reality though, just as death is a certainty so is losing, even for the apparent winners.

West has a strong cast who bring out the misery of their characters' loneliness but also the desperate hope that this will be the night when they start a winning streak despite the heavy odds against.

Dealer's Choice is a timeless play that will inevitably attract those who understand the significance of a pair of threes at the wrong moment - one man gasped for some reason that only the initiated would appreciate. It also has more general appeal and Babani might have a West End transfer in view with this cast and a popular topic. He might just make it.

John Thaxter reviewed this production on its transfer to the Traflagar Studios

Reviewer: Philip Fisher