Samuel West’s brilliant revival of Patrick Marber’s poker play Dealer's Choice has now moved from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the larger of the Trafalgar Studios and has, if anything, improved as a result.

I am no great fan of this auditorium (where there is no great fan), but it suits play and production to perfection here. You can look right down the throat of the play, right into the restaurant, where Malcolm Sinclair as the owner is sitting at a table fiddling with paperwork. Behind him, in the inner kitchen, the chefs are chopping away against a reflective, gleaming back wall.

The Menier cast is intact: Sinclair as Stephen with Samuel Barnett as his debt-ridden son; Roger Lloyd Pack as the silent professional who has come to collect; Stephen Wight as the winning loser Mugsy (now an award-winning loser Mugsy, having been named Outstanding Newcomer by the Evening Standard); Jay Simpson and Ross Boatman as staff members with their own set of fantasies and problems.

The hypnotic rhythm of the play moves from the set-up to the game itself – “bingo for brain surgeons” – thrillingly joined as an almost sacred rite of chips and cards, bluffs and calls, risks and outbursts. I’d forgotten how funny is the first act simultaneous double row, but not how cleverly Marber threads the comic lunacy of Mugsy’s toilet conversion adventure on the Mile End Road through the dialogue. A real treat of writing and acting.

- Michael Coveney


NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from October 2007 and this production’s original run at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

When Patrick Marber’s gripping poker play Dealer's Choice opened at the National Theatre in 1995, the card game was, as an entertaining programme note by Anthony Holden reminds us, a fringe hobby indulged in by one or two people one knew and a whole cast of low-life elsewhere.

Marber himself was an addict at university, hence the play, but poker is now mainstream entertainment on television and internet alike. As someone whose card-playing skills extend to the odd game of whist or cribbage, I’m obviously in a sad minority. Not only Holden is hooked (has been for years), but so is this revival’s director, Samuel West, and the Menier’s artistic director, David Babani, who has produced the show.

The exhilarating promise of Marber’s writing debut was followed two years later with its confirmation in Closer, the archetypal stylish “relationships” play of the Nineties. Although Marber’s output has been steady rather than torrential, everything he does is accomplished with wit and assurance. That confidence and swagger is apparent in this marvellous evening.

Echoing David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross in its enclosed male world, setting up the sport then living with the consequences, we spend the first act in Stephen’s restaurant kitchen and the second round at the green baize table. Stephen (glacially pent up and dominating Malcolm Sinclair) and his employees play a game every Monday night.

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 kitchen staff comprises a couple of waiters and a chef (played first time out in Marber’s own production by Nigel Lindsay, Phil Daniels and Ray Winstone): the ebullient fantasist Mugsy, a loser most winningly played by Stephen Wight, harbouring dreams of opening his own eaterie in a converted toilet on the Mile End Road; Frankie (Jay Simpson), a comic demonstration of how two-bit players might taste the big time; and the chef Sweeney (Ross Boatman – yet another poker player in real life) who has troubles at home that won’t be solved here.

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 Coveney