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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Menier Chocolate Factory

By Matt Wolf

  Malcolm Sinclair

It's rare for the sophomore production of a contemporary play that one had thought was flawed not only to erase (almost) all doubts one had nursed before but, in so doing, to suggest the play as a contemporary classic. But that's the essential astonishment of the Menier Chocolate Factory production of Patrick Marber's Dealer's Choice, which not only eclipses Marber's own, starry National Theater premiere of his play in 1995 but announces Samuel West as a director every bit as scrupulous and acute as he is an actor. It wasn't that many months ago that West the performer re-evaluated for keeps Betrayal, the Harold Pinter play to which he provided an icy, newly exacting core. And here he is, accomplishing much the same from an offstage perspective, revealing both what is ruthless and also moving about Marber's debut play.


Since Dealer's Choice was first seen, its milieu, poker, has been elevated from some covert, vaguely sleazy pastime to a mainstream obsession that occupies pride of place on the net. But helpful though a programme essay by Anthony Holden is in reminding us of this fact, the play uses poker the way one of its obvious influences, David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, coopts the language of real estate. Like many a lasting drama, Dealer's Choice is a work play albeit of a particular sort: while Tom Piper's expert set might at first suggest Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen, what in fact emerges is a study in gamesmanship as it is played out by fathers and sons, both actual and surrogate. It helps immeasurably that all four points on that particular spectrum are definitively inhabited, with special kudos going to Malcolm Sinclair as a poshly spoken, just possibly gay London restaurateur named Stephen who is on the outs with his own heavily gambling son Carl(Samuel Barnett ,in his first London play since The History Boys). In between tossing off references to The Wasteland, Stephen takes a paternal interest in his ceaselessly antic head waiter, Mugsy (Stephen Wight, an alum of Marber's Don Juan in Soho), a likeable fantasist who wants to open his own eatery one day in what is now a toilet on the Mile End Road. The restaurant retinue is completed by Jay Simpson as the Claret -drinking Frankie, who devotes his energies alternately to scoring with woman and decamping to Las Vegas, and by Ross Boatman in a beautiful turn as Sweeney, the beer-bellied chef. The one actor who has appeared in this play before ( albeit in a different role), Boatman all but embodies this production's enormous emotional reach, as he moves from affection for the young daughter whom he clearly doesn't see enough - another scenario of estrangement - to a rage that can't be contained. In the end, the character boils over in much the same way, one imagines, as the food sizzling away on the stove. ( One question: how has a restaurant with so few apparent customers stayed in business all these years.)


Every play, as Shakespeare knew, needs a good outsider (Glengarry certainly has one), and Dealer's Choice finds precisely that with the arrival of the literally poker-faced Ash, a professional card player to whom Carl, we soon learn, is seriously in debt. Elucidating to the witless Mugsy the physics of amaretti biscuits and the capacity their wrapping paper has to catch alight, this staging's Ash, Roger Lloyd Pack , underplays his thespian hand with such finesse that the stakes involved become almost indecently exciting. Even the silences count: Marber, like West, has worked with Pinter, and that shared affiliation turns out to be perfect for a play that c


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