So, I went to the Menier last Thursday for their revival of Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice. Though – small admission – I wasn’t really looking forward to it; I was curious yes, I’d not seen the play the first time around and was intrigued, but I wasn’t really open to the idea I might enjoy it. After all, the usually reliable Menier tends to flounder when it comes to non-musicals, as the stodgy All Mouth attested, and though I’ve seen several good fringe productions of Marber’s best known play, Closer, I’ve never really warmed to it, indeed have come to actively dislike its unrelentingly bleak outlook. But one of my friends is seriously into poker, a game I’ve never really got to grips with, so hoping for insight, I went along.
For him poker is more than just a hobby, he would certainly snort at my use of the word ‘game.’ No, to him, poker is a beautiful thing, a pure and perfect exercise, demanding wit, skill and empathy from the player. There was nothing that happened in his life that couldn’t be summed up with a poker metaphor and he talked about his poker experiences with intensity and passion, often employing a near-impenetrable poker-centric language, peppered with references to Hold 'Em and Omaha and wild cards and what not. He often tried to convey what it was about poker that made him feel so awake, so connected, but though I nodded along, I don’t think I ever really got it.
And I’m still not sure I do. But I am a little nearer. Marber’s play really gets across what poker means to those (men) who play it, the power it exerts. The play is set in a London restaurant where the staff hold weekly Sunday poker sessions, run by the restaurant's owner, the calm, meticulous Stephen. These games are also the only time he sees his son Carl, so they have particular significance to him. The remaining players consist of a young waiter called Mugsy, an eternally optimistic fellow with a mad scheme of turning a Mile End public lav into a posh restaurant of his very own; the other waiter, Frankie, is a bit more together; and there’s also a cook, Sweeney, (played by Ross Boatman, who I gather is a bit of a poker legend himself) who’s divorced with a young daughter and hopes to cry off that night's game so he can save his cash to take her to the zoo the next day. (It’s giving away little to say his good intentions come to nothing).
The first half carefully sets up these characters, the way they interact and their various motivations. It's deftly done, the material enhanced by some genuinely superb ensemble stage acting, particularly from Malcolm Sinclair as Stephen. I really liked his measured, controlled performance – you could sense so much going on beneath the calm exterior. I also liked Stephen Wight’s Mugsy, a man whose mouth seems to be permanently two steps ahead of his brain. I suspect it takes really great timing to play dim with such proficiency. Roger Lloyd Pack was also entertaining, exuding deadpan menace as Ash, the professional poker player to whom Carl owes a hefty sum of money – though there’s something a bit wrong about seeing Trigger from Only Fools and Horses calling a man a cunt..
The already simmering tension builds up considerably in the second half when the poker game proper begins and the striking restaurant kitchen set, with its mirrored back wall, is replaced by that of the basement poker room. (I came back from the bar in time to see them changing the set around, a complex process involving ramps and motors and winches and things, fascinating, but I thought rather too susceptible to things snapping or sticking or generally going awry). The play runs at well over two hours but it flits by, every moment used wisely. I didn’t look at my watch once, and while I still couldn’t tell you what a river card is, or anything like that, I came away feeling I understood a little more of what this 'game' means to my friend.
Oh, and more musings on matinees here.