Dealer’s Choice @ Menier Chocolate Factory, London

cast list
Stephen Wight
Ross Boatman
Samuel Barnett
Jay Simpson
Malcolm Sinclair
Roger Lloyd Pack

directed by
Sam West
One of my friends used to be seriously into poker. For him it was more than just a hobby, more than just a game, it was a code to live by; it was about psychology, analysis, tactics and a tiny bit of luck. Often he tried to describe to me the particular pleasures of playing poker and, while I nodded along, I don’t think I ever fully got it. However having seen this revival of Patrick Marber’s first play, I think I’m closer to comprehending what he was trying to explain.

OK, I still don’t fully understand the lingo, all the talk of Hold ‘Em and Omaha and wild cards and what not, but I think I better grasp what drives some people to gamble, the thrill, the buzz. Fortunately you don’t need to be fluent in the terminology to enjoy Marber’s tense character study. I’ve always felt his Closer was very overrated, but this is different perhaps because there are no women involved. This is an intensely masculine world, but not overwhelmingly so.

Dealer’s Choice is set in a London restaurant where the staff hold weekly Sunday poker sessions, run by the restaurant’s owner, the calm, meticulous Stephen. Among the players are his nervy son Carl, who has struggled with a gambling problem in the past and had to be bailed out by his father. There’s also the eternally optimistic waiter Mugsy, with his mad scheme of turning a public convenience in Mile End into a posh restaurant of his own, and a cook, Sweeney, who hopes to cry of that night’s game so he can be fresh enough (both physically and financially) to take his young daughter out to the zoo the next day.

There’s also the cocky, lecherous waiter Frankie and Ash, a man to whom Carl owes money and wants the chance to win it back. The first half sets carefully sets up these characters, the way they interact and their various motivations. It’s deftly done with considerable humour. The material is strong, but it helps that Sam West’s (a former poker buddy of Marber’s, according to the programme notes) production is blessed with a number of extraordinary performances. This is superb stage acting, particularly from Malcolm Sinclair as Stephen, alternatively aloof yet clearly troubled by the path his son’s life is taking. It’s a measured, powerful performance that evokes considerable pathos.

Stephen Wight is also excellent, as the endearingly dopey Mugsy, a man whose mouth seems to be permanently two steps ahead of his brain. It’s an energetic and thoroughly convincing performance, and Wight clearly has a great sense of timing. Samuel Barnett (the original Posner from The History Boys) is well cast as the distant Carl, who constantly butts against his father, yet clearly desires his affection and approval. And I liked Roger Lloyd Pack’s deadpan menace as Ash.

The already simmering tension builds up considerably in the second half when the striking restaurant kitchen set is replaced by the simpler basement poker room. Indeed, the pacing is superb throughout and though the play runs at well over two hours, it flits by, every moment used wisely.

Marber knows his poker clearly and the play draws you into that world but if it were only about the game it wouldn’t be half of what it was, instead it reveals much about men and how they interact, the need to compete, the need to win. It also paints a complex and intriguing picture of what happens to a father and son relationship when words have lost their power. There is love there but its subsumed by anger, fear and inability to say what needs to be said. And though I’m neither a poker player, nor anyone’s father or son, I was fascinated.

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