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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Trafalgar Studio 1

By Clive Hirschhorn

  Stephen Wight and Roger Lloyd Pack

My knowledge of poker is about as weighty as a playing card, but it's of no consequence whatsoever where the enjoyment of Patrick Marber's laddish first play, Dealer's Choice is concerned.Clearly influenced by the David Mamet of American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross-both in its language and the depiction of the tensions and competitiveness of a group of interacting men over a period of time- it's the most entertaining contemporary play currently on the London stage, and as such, something of an endangered species.

Jointly set in a restaurant, its kitchen and a basement area in which easy-going restauraneur Stephen ( Malcolm Sinclair) hosts a weekly game of poker for his staff, the play is a character study of six very different men- all of whom, in one way or another, are frustrated with the hand life has dealt them.

Stephen the most successful of the group-can't relate to his moody underachieving son Carl (Samuel Barnett), whose gambling debts keep mounting up, and who resents the fact that dad is always bailing him out of trouble.

Sweeney (Ross Boatman), the establishment's chef, is a divorcee whose only connection to family life is an occasional visit to his young daughter. He shares digs with Frankie (Jay Simpson), a wideboy waiter whose outward ambition is to win enough money at poker to move to Las Vegas.

The remaining member of the staff is Mugsy (Stephen Wight), a motor-mouthed Cockney whose ambition is to buy a disused toilet in the Mile End road and turn it into a restaurant of his own. An impractical dreamer with a perpetually unlucky streak, Mugsy is the play's most engaging character, and, in many ways its saddest. Lacking any sense of reality, he is the most prone to long-term failure, all his ambitions destined to turn to dust.

The sixth member of the cast is Ash (Roger Lloyd Pack), a laconic professional gambler, who has befriended young Carl in order to fleece him-which he does to the tune of 4,000 pounds.

The first act, which takes place in the restaurant on a slow Sunday night, allows us to watch Stephen, his son and his staff interact in the course of which we see the world of the average male in microcosm while the second act presents us with a high-stakes poker game, in which we learn more about the men around the table, how savvy (or otherwise) they are when it comes to gambling, how they handle moments of stress and tension-and most interesting of all, how each copes emotionally when the stakes become uncomfortably high.

Even more involving than it was when I first saw it in 1995, Dealer's Choice is a serious comedy that speaks volumes about addiction and obsession. Samuel West's production, a transfer from the Menier Chocolate Factory, is beautifully observed, thanks largely to its cast who, collectively, allow us a revealing peek into the heart of the human condition.

Particularly striking is Malcolm Sinclair's laid-back Stephen, Lloyd Pack's po-faced Ash, and in the play's flashiest role, Stephen Wight's Mugsy.

Wight gauges to perfection just how far he can go with his character's in-your-face personality without ever allowing the role to become irritating-which it could so easily be. Here's a young actor to watch and to cherish.



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