The dialogue of Patrick Marber's popular play Dealer's Choice, which premiered to general acclaim twelve years ago in the National's Cottlesloe Theatre, is as cannily uncompromising as one of its shark-eyed poker players.
Based on actual card playing action experienced by the playwright himself, during which he was often joined by this revival's director Samuel West, its scenarios often exude the biting sting of truth.
As the play opens, Sweeney (Ross Boatman) can be seen slicing tomatoes in what appears to be the shiny chrome kitchen of a restaurant. While the audience takes their seats, he rather mechanically moves onto the potatoes, peeling them as though he has performed the task a million times before. Enter Mugsy (Stephen Wight) the seemingly, dim-witted, but happy go lucky waiter who can't wait to get to their Friday night post work poker game. A roughly dapper, somewhat older waiter Frankie (Jay Simpson) however, gets all the birds, including that well constructed blonde who so prominently figured at table eight the evening before. Young Carl (Samuel Barnett) might be able to get on with life if he could only curb his gambling habit. Restaurant owner Stephen (Malcolm Sinclair), who happens to be his father, is fed up with bailing him out, but Ash (Roger Lloyd Pack), who wanted the money Carl owes him yesterday, isn't having it.
Marber's nineties play definitely has its moments, as at its conclusion, all is not as it appeared at the outset and the covert morale of the tale presents itself as a bit of a wild card. However, some of its characters could easily descend into the Never-Never Land of clichÃ© were it not for the excellent acting of this production's talented, well-seasoned cast and solid directing by the aforementioned Samuel West. Pack's overtly villainous Ash is a case in point, as is Stephen Wight's wideboyishly charming Mugsy, who, happily, in that actor's capable hands becomes somewhat endearing, rather than irritating.
The smartly efficient set by Tom Piper shifted from restaurant kitchen, spilling out onto restaurant proper with its small, circular tables for two, to poker den at the interval for the tense drama of the game. From a side seat in the theatre, however, I was privy to only one aspect of the proceedings via actor's expressions, so it is advisable for patrons wishing to maximise their theatrical experience to seek central seating.
Thoughtful lighting by Neil Austin effectively accompanies the action, flowing in synch with shifts in the storyline. Sound design by Gareth Owen though well crafted, might serve the production, rather than compete with it, were it replaced with an undercurrent rather than a competitive, jarring drone. As is, it threatens to catapult one right out of the Meier into nearby Ministry of Sound, circa techno nineties.
The psychological implications of poker playing present a perfect platform from which to make points that pivot on pride, practicalities, and personal credos. Although there may be nothing new about Marber's premise, this hard-working production presents itself as well as it possibly could and all of the actors acquit themselves admirably. So the experience of throwing one's hand in with this lot becomes as enjoyable as the enthusiastic applause of the full house and subsequent curtain calls indicated.