Dealer's Choice

Patrick Marber
Trafalgar Studio 1
(2007)

Publicity image

Being no card player and a lifelong non-gambler, I am so far away from the lives and obsessions of Marber’s second act poker school, set in the cellar of a posh restaurant, that I could neither get to grips with nor understood the cut (as it were) and thrust of their sad losers’ game.

Thus I am slightly bemused by the enduring success of the piece, first at the National a dozen years ago, most recently at the Menier Chocolate Factory this autumn and now transferred to the West End — albeit superbly staged by Sam West and played to the hilt by a tiptop, all-male cast.

Two performances stand out. Stephen Wight, who plays Mugsy by name and a mug by nature, has just been proclaimed Outstanding Newcomer by the Evening Standard theatre awards judging panel, here giving a striking performance that combines engaging wit with mindless optimism.

He plays the hapless young waiter with dreams of setting up a fortune-making eaterie in a disused public lavatory on the Mile End Road. A big win at cards will set him on his foolish way.

The other is Roger Lloyd Pack as professional hustler Ash, a shabbily dressed, poker-faced thug, whose long losing streak has got him in trouble, big time, with a gambling syndicate. Now he desperately needs to win the pot at the end of the game to stave off their unspecified threats of reprisals.

We are first introduced to the characters on a quiet Sunday evening, upstairs in the restaurant owned by Malcolm Sinclair’s open-handed smoothie Stephen, who controls his staff with gentle mockery, lofty advice and paternalistic handouts, while setting them up for his weekly game of poker.

His son Carl, an addictive gambler nervily played by Samuel Barnett, has betrayed his father’s trust with a lost year of secret high-rolling funded by Ash, who has now turned up to collect on the boy’s debt with menaces.

The cast is completed by Ross Boatman as the shambling chef Sweeney whose obsessive gambling habits have destroyed all that he holds dear, and Jay Simpson in the curiously underwritten role of his son Frankie, a poor hand at poker who is headed the same way.

Tom Piper, design supremo at the RSC and a regular collaborator with Michael Boyd, has created a brilliant setting that enables the centre-stage restaurant kitchen to be hoisted on hydraulics during the interval, thus revealing the cellar with its single dangling light above the green-baize arena of the card playing table stacked with chips, plus what is eventually revealed as the side display of an open cash box stashed with big denomination banknotes.

Indeed the evening is most notable for its stagecraft, from Marber’s sly way of removing unwanted characters from a scene as they pop outside for a fag or a pee, and the orchestration of the overlaying shouting matches between the two pairs of fathers with their sons.

Philip Fisher reviewed Sam West’s production when it first opened at the Menier in October 2007. Rivka Jacobson also reviewed the Trafalgar Studios production.

Reviewer: John Thaxter