Patrick Marber’s award-winning debut play about men and poker, Dealer's Choice, was revived this week (opened 3 October, previews from 27 September) at Southwark’s Menier Chocolate Factory in a production directed by actor-director, and fellow card player, Samuel West (See News, 1 Jun 2007). Its limited season continues until 17 November.
Dealer's Choice is set after-hours in a restaurant where six men meet each week to play cards. Tonight the stakes are higher than usual – but winning has its price. In a night of psychological violence and bluff, the players stay up late and bust each other out.
The play premiered at the National’s Cottesloe Theatre in 1995, directed by Marber, and later transferred to the West End’s Vaudeville Theatre and won the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy. Best known at that point as a stand-up comedian and TV sketch writer, Marber partly based his playwriting debut on his own experiences with gambling addiction. Two years later, he confirmed his reputation with Closer. The plays Howard Katz, After Miss Julie and Don Juan in Soho also followed, as did the screenplay of Notes on a Scandal, for which Marber was Oscar-nominated.
West’s production of Dealer's Choice is designed by Tom Piper, with lighting by Neil Austin and sound by Gareth Owen. Malcolm Sinclair and Whatsonstage.com Award winner Samuel Barnett (The History Boys) play father and son. Also in the cast are Roger Lloyd Pack (pictured), Stephen Wight, Ross Boatman and Jay Simpson.
First night critics dealt an even hand with a round of four-star reviews, welcoming back Marber’s play which, they noted, has been given extra relevance today thanks to the popularity of online poker. According to some, West’s “gripping” and “explosively acted” production even improves on Marber’s original, giving the play a “new lease of life”. There were individual plaudits for everyone in the six-strong, all-male cast, with special appreciation given to Stephen Wight’s “blissfully funny” performance as the chirpily delusional waiter Mugsy.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “The spine of the play is the relationship between Stephen and his hapless, hopeless son, Carl (fresh-faced Samuel Barnett from The History Boys, just slightly miscast) who has run up some debts and faces the music when the game is joined by a stony-faced outsider Ash (the wonderfully lugubrious, spaniel-like Roger Lloyd Pack), a professional who has come to collect. The risk and insolence of the game is caught in a superb sequence when Ash’s pair of threes beats absolutely nothing … The proceedings are brilliantly directed by West on a gleaming kitchen set by Tom Piper, ravishingly lit by Neil Austin, that draws us in then sits us down in the quiet of the after-hours restaurant. The plot twists are as hard to follow as the cut of the cards, but you go with the flow because, whatever the deal, you’re in safe hands.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “First seen 12 years ago, Patrick Marber's dramatic debut is chiefly remembered as the play about poker. But, as Samuel West's superbly acted revival reminds us, it is principally a play about fathers and sons and the emotional deficiencies of men prey to ungovernable obsession … The play combines a quicksilver wit with an intimate understanding of the psychological flaws of even the part-time poker addict. The joy of West's production, however, lies in the quality of the performances. Malcolm Sinclair's Stephen admirably combines dry irony with a palpable sense of paternal loss while Samuel Barnett as his wastrel son seems like an updated version of Shakespeare's Prince Hal torn between rival fathers. The play's emotional tension is relieved by a blissfully funny performance from Stephen Wight as Mugsy the waiter … Wight captures perfectly the charming ineptitude of a character who declares, ‘I've risen from the ashes like the proverbial dodo’. And Roger Lloyd Pack as Ash conveys the fugitive despair of the professional gambler while giving fresh meaning to the term ‘poker-faced’. Highly recommended.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (five stars) - “I watched this revival of Patrick Marber's debut play with a mixture of exhilaration and regret. Exhilaration because, 12 years on from its premiere, his drama of gambling, male rivalry, and the taste of dust and ashes in your mouth at dawn still feels bang on the money. Regret because Marber hasn't lived up to his spectacular early promise … In Dealer's Choice, the dramatist brilliantly lays bare the camaraderie, fierce joshing and rancorous rivalry that so often comprise male relationships. He also nails the key point about compulsive gamblers: that for them the real attraction isn't the big win, however much they might believe it is. No, what really turns them on is the prospect of loss and disaster. All addictions are, at root, a kind of death wish, whether conscious or not … Samuel West, a poker player himself, directs a compelling production that captures the excitement of the game, Marber's often hilarious humour and the drama's sudden disconcerting glimpses of despair. Malcolm Sinclair conveys both the control-freakery and the hidden vulnerability of the restaurateur who hosts the game, while Samuel Barnett is painfully raw and wounded as his full-time loser of a son … Stephen Wight turns in an irresistible comic performance as the aptly named Mugsy … Roger Lloyd Pack, meanwhile, is superb as a hatchet-faced, hardened pro who retains a small sliver of humanity in his heart.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “Even people like me, who know nothing about poker or gambling, will be fascinated by Patrick Marber's Dealer's Choice. West's gripping production of this psychological comedy that made the playwright's name in 1995 makes you forcefully aware that Marber's real interest is in showing how compulsive-addictive behaviour exerts a destructive impact upon close, personal relationships … That competitive streak branded in too many males goads the players to treat life as an irresistible gambling spree and reveals how nothing but debts and poker unite father and son. Malcolm Sinclair's extraordinary, commanding performance as Stephen, with its elements of aloofness and inscrutability, sorrow and loneliness, conveys the pathos of a father who recognises his own role in his son's downfall.”
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (three stars) – “Patrick Marber’s poker play has been given a new lease of life. This is partly down to the boom in internet gambling and the growth of poker as a sport … What makes Marber’s play hum is the characters, who are themselves a pack of cards … Clever as this is, it also comprises a bitterly cold vision of a man’s world, maintained by poker-faced posturing. Emotionally, it is an Arctic tundra. This makes the play easier to appreciate than to love, even though Samuel West’s explosively acted production trump’s Marber’s 1995 original – not least thanks to Tom Piper’s ingenious, chic set.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “If you thought that the play which introduced us to Patrick Marber in 1995 was little more than a trial run for his Closer two years later - and I confess I did – Samuel West’s superb revival at the Menier should disabuse you. Dealer's Choice is very funny, but beneath the humour you sense much the same darkness. If Closer was a near-definitive study of sexual greed and ruthlessness, the earlier play is equally sharp about our need for danger, destruction and, sometimes, self-destruction. Act I is preparation for the weekly poker contest that Malcolm Sinclair’s cool, suave Stephen lays on for his staff in his London restaurant; Act II consists of card combat that’s both grippingly real and unpretentiously metaphoric. Even if, like me, you think that a royal flush is something that happens to princesses during the menopause, you’ll be able to follow the ups and downs of a game that isn’t just a game … There’s plenty here about father-son friction, friendship and betrayal, compulsion and addiction, and men for whom the high life is competing with other men.”
Julie Carpenter in Daily Express (four stars) – “More than a decade on, this new production brings out (the play’s) relevance, its laugh-out-loud comedy and its acrid bite, confirming why it was such an attention-grabbing debut. If anything it has probably gained a greater resonance and a wider audience, given the huge surge in poker’s popularity and the emergence of online gambling which has gained its fair share of casualties … Marber’s skill lies in clinically dissecting the players’ motivations and compulsions. It is a hilarious and at times devastating analysis of the destructiveness inherent in the gambler’s psyche … Impressively actively, atmospherically lit and given tight direction by Samuel West, the first half is great comedy, while the second is tense power play tinged with disillusionment … Marber has dealt a fiercely good night out.”
- by Terri Paddock