The show’s director Samuel West, a poker-playing friend of the play’s author Patrick Marber, along with cast members Roger Lloyd Pack, Stephen Wight, Ross Boatman, Malcolm Sinclair and Samuel Barnett stayed on after a high-energy production to discuss their thoughts on Marber, poker and male bonding among other topics.
In Dealer's Choice, six men meet to play poker after hours in a restaurant. As the game heats up, relationships are tested and a lot more than money is at stake. Pride, affection and honesty are all challenged.
The play, which marked Marber’s playwriting debut, premiered in 1995 at the National Theatre, where the author directed it himself. West’s production first opened at the Menier Chocolate Factory last October before transferring in December to the West End’s Trafalgar Studios (See 1st Night Photos, 12 Dec 2007), where it continues until 29 March 2008. Dealer's Choice has been nominated for two awards in this year’s Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards – Best Off-West End Production for its time at the Menier and Best Ensemble Performance (click here to vote!).
Monday’s post-show discussion at Dealer's Choice was chaired by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock. For more photos and feedback, visit our Outings Blog and for details of upcoming events, click here. Edited highlights from the Q&A follow …
On reviving Dealer’s Choice
Samuel West: I find it funny that a lot of people think directors revive things just because they think it’s time. I’ve directed 11 plays and I have only ever chosen to direct two of them. You do what you’re asked to do. This play was the result of a very timely discussion by David Babani at the Chocolate Factory, who has been wanting to revive this for a long time. He plays a lot of poker.
Ross Boatman: I think this production is much better than the original 1995 production which I was in. Patrick is not here so I can say that. I played Frankie. It’s a better than the original. As you can see if you watch the play, Sam has done a very skilful job with this production. I think it explores the relationships between father and son more than Patrick did. Although Patrick wrote the play, somehow Sam seems to have done a special job with this.
Malcolm Sinclair: Not much has been updated script-wise. The reference to the Tate Modern, I think that’s the only line.
West: And, yes, the mobile phones are smaller! In the original, Mugsy makes a reference to Ash’s mobile phone as if it’s a very unusual thing to have.
Stephen Wight: You should have kept that in there. It is a real Mugsy line. “You’ve got a mobile, I’m well impressed. Not just pay as you go.”
West: I know Nigel Lindsay, who played Mugsy originally because hes a member of my poker school. He invented the cry “diamonds” (pronounced “deemondz”) that Mugsy makes. He says it comes back at him in poker games he goes to around London. People don’t realise he made it up. Anyone else doing a version of this play has to deal with the fact that somebody else has invented this thing. You have to not worry about who has worn the crown before but just take it and stagger on under it and then pass it on to the next person lucky enough to have a chance. I think Stephen has done that with that word.
On playing poker
West: I think the sort of poker this play centres around, the home game, is a very different sort of game from the poker that’s getting famous and lucrative today. Ask Ross, he’s a professional poker player.
Boatman: Yeah, I play poker for a living when I’m not doing this, and it is very different indeed from the game that this play is based on, which is in fact the game I used to play with Patrick Marber many years ago, before he wrote Dealer's Choice. Yeah, if you have got any questions about playing poker for a living, I would be happy to answer them. Malcolm and Samuel still don’t know how to play really. I have got them locked up in the dressing room after work practising.
Malcolm Sinclair: Sam and I don’t really get poker, but everybody else loves it. We had to stay behind after rehearsals for an hour and play poker on night. For me, it was like being a schoolkid in physics and me not really knowing what is going on.
West: I have a photograph of that session with Malcolm and Sam sitting in front of an enormous mountain of chips.
Sinclair: Yeah, we won!
Boatman: Roger, Stephen and Jay Simpson who plays Frankie are all quite keen players. Roger has been playing for some time.
Roger Lloyd Pack: I’m quite old really.
West: I played with Patrick Marber in the early Nineties. In fact the reference to Stephen keeping little graphs and charts of who wins, Patrick says is a reference to me because I used to do that. A friend of mine came to see the show and Patrick told him he was in the play, when Sweeney says “come on mate I am growing a beard here”. Patrick was just taking little bits from the games he was playing and putting them in.
On dealing the right hand
Lloyd Pack: The stage managers are so brilliant at stacking the cards, but sometimes the wrong cards do come up. Sometimes it’s just human error on our part.
West: On behalf of everybody, I have to say we have an extraordinary stage management who stack six decks every show so that when they turn up, the cards come out the right way. But it does go wrong. Sam, it went wrong on press night at the Chocolate Factory, didn’t it?
Samuel Barnett: Yes, the very last hand in the first act, just when it’s very tense, and I’m trying to remember what cards I’m meant to have, the wrong cards came out. It completely threw me.
West: I didn’t notice. “King, Jack and Jack” he called as he turned over a four and two sevens. He very cleverly messed them up so that people didn’t notice as they were walking out. I didn’t even notice.
On the all-male company
West: The father-son relationship is brought out in this production. That is something Patrick was very keen on. One of the amazing things that has happened since Patrick wrote the play is that he’s become a father three times. When he wrote it, he was sort of Carl, now he’s sort of Stephen. Not quite as old as Stephen, but he has become a father. I think he was really worried that the play might not stand up but I think it stands up better... There are a lot of women in the play they just don’t appear on the stage.
Sinclair: Patrick says women like watching this play because they get to see what men are like when they’re not around. All the men in the play have failed relationships.
West: When Frankie comes in and they all ask him if he scored with a girl last night, the only reason they want to know is because he’s the only one who’s having sex. Truly, for years, well months in Sweeney’s case.
Wight: Never in Mugsy’s case.
On rehearsing & ensemble acting
West: I always ask actors to learn their lines before we start. I have to say thank you to this particular cast because, with very few exceptions, people were off book from day one. We only had three weeks of rehearsals. With a play like this, you could use five. It is really a play about the relationships between the characters. It’s important to learn how to play convincingly and it’s important to make sure the poker works, which is mostly what we spent the third week working out. But actually the poker is a way of telling the story, not the story itself. As soon as people get off book, they can concentrate on what really matters, which is working on each other to get what they really want, which is really what the play is about.
Sinclair: All the best directors I have worked with have either been actors or writers because they absolutely know what we are having to do. Sam has never said “do it like this”. He has very good taste as an actor. If one is going slightly over the top, he will tell you. The great thing about this script is its rhythm.
Lloyd Pack: We find this a very tiring play to do, or I do. I’m trying to work out why because it’s not like it’s a massive part with loads of lines to learn, but I find this as tiring if not more so than a lot of plays where the part is more demanding. I think it’s because there is a ball that has to be kept up in the air and we are all responsible for that and if any of us let it drop then the play is over really. It very much depends on little looks and quick entrances, so we have to concentrate very hard and rely on each other.
West: People work on the person opposite them all the time in this play, and if you don’t it’s all over. It’s not a play about what you’re feeling, it’s a play about what you do about what you’re feeling, and how you get what you want. All good competent plays are.
Sinclair: This play cannot work unless we’re listening to each other. We are a good ensemble because there’s no star in this play. There are no supporting actors and no star.
Sinclair: No seriously, we all carry the same weight in the play.
On the set & fitting into Trafalgar Studios
West: I want to say something on behalf of our brilliant designer Tom Piper. He’s best known for having designed all eight history plays for the RSC. In between he managed to do this. He normally does quite non-realistic sets. We needed a kitchen area and a restaurant area and Tom decided one had to intrude on the other. You can’t just have two different rooms because it’s too literal, and it can’t take too long to get from one to the other because it slows it all down. So Tom read the script as a good designer should and decided they should all be part of the same thing. In the argument scene (which takes place simultaneously in the kitchen and restaurant), this makes it seem like it is all centred around one thing. So it became one room with two parts intruding on each other. That covered the first half and then he had the simple idea of having the floor from the first half become the ceiling. That was it, just a designer having two really good ideas and the rest is dressing. I think it served the play very well. Also I think the play serves this space. If you’re sitting looking at a round table, you really have to look quite a long way away from the table in order to see all sides of it clearly. This auditorium is very steep so you end up getting a good view of the whole round table. I actually think it’s better here than at the Chocolate Factory. Although you never quite get that kind of squeezed-in feeling you had there.
On the overlapping argument scene
Boatman: I think Sam has got to take credit for the argument and how meticulously he choreographed it - you knew what you wanted to see and I think that is what really works. The blocking of that scene and the design along with the choreographed movements complement each other. It still makes me laugh. And Stephen has such perfect comic timing. I can get angry easily. Just working with these guys makes me angry. The dialogue is written with such beautiful rhythm that it makes it easier somehow. But I suppose that is our job, just to concentrate on what we’re doing and act certain emotions such as anger.
On finding meaning in the play
West: A friend of mine came to see the play the other day and he said that Ash is the only honourable character because he’s the only one who is straightforward. He also said it’s the only play he has seen where Falstaff wins… The play is saying something about that fact that there is always a bigger game in which you are a loser. It’s okay to be a loser as long as you know that’s what you are.
- by Kate Jackson