Dealer's Choice

Tue 11th – Sat 15th June 2013

reviews

JY Hoh

at 02:17 on 12th Jun 2013

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Patrick Marber’s first play is about a group of men who play an intense poker game. Most of them are not good players, and are just wildly gambling. Director Cameron Cook, on the other hand, is far from clueless – he knows exactly what he is doing, and has skilfully put together a taut piece of theatre that is hilarious when it is comic and piercing when it is dark.

The success of this production can be put down to a combination of a terrific script and some very astute casting. Marber’s script uses the conceit of a poker game, but is really about men playing with stakes that are far more emotional than the pound sterling. This is a story about the way men interact, and Marber argues that they are brutal, compete fiercely, and very occasionally, treat each other with awkward kindness. Speeches are clipped and razor sharp, and most of the conversation is dominated by jabs and counter-ripostes; a lesser cast could see this descend into monotony or tedious chatter. Luckily, every player in this six-hander suits their role really well; Stephen (Alexander Stutt) is every bit the fatherly boss, by turns condescending and benevolent. Ash (Sanjay Mewada) is the portrait of a hard man used to hard words, and Sweeney (Markian Mysko van Schultz) is a convincing blue-collar chap who struggles between his loyalty to his daughter and a degenerate streak. The real star of the show, however, is Mugsy (Cameron Cook), a prize imbecile whose inane aphorisms are uttered by Cook with such verve that the audience laughs both at and with the character. A talented cast brings a tricky script to life with splendid results.

The direction is excellent here, and all one hundred and thirty minutes of the show pass by smoothly. One particularly impressive scene involves two concurrent arguments getting louder and louder while Cook potters about in a panic, and deserves praise both for the difficulty of its execution and the precision with which it is staged. The scenes involving poker are gripping, benefiting from judiciously designed lighting that shrouds each player’s face in a shadow. The pacing of these scenes is also to be lauded; as the night goes on, more beer is drunk, each man grows steadily more irritable, and every outburst and breakdown is well-timed and compelling. The energy never dips, and the audience was riveted throughout.

Some criticisms, though minor, can be made. The climax was held back from maximum impact by strange faltering from Stutt and Mewada just as energy was building to a crescendo. Mewada’s air of stoic menace also sometimes translates into wooden intonation and physicality, jarring with the rest of the energetic cast. These problems, however, will almost certainly dissipate as the run goes on and each actor gains confidence. Stellar direction and spot-on performances make Dealer’s Choice a very safe bet indeed.

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Nick Williams

at 09:59 on 12th Jun 2013

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An East-End restaurant in the mid-90s, a Sunday evening poker game, green baize lit from above – Patrick Marber’s dark comedy surely cries out for an intimate space like the BT studio. And actor/director Cameron Cook, has clearly felt this sense of claustrophobia dripping from Marber’s script and used it to endow his production’s every moment of pause and silence with fierce tension and suggestion. The speed of the exchanges, the quickness of the wit and the pent up aggression held within each character are impressively communicated by the six-man cast and in the middle of this vortex of continually re-affirmed masculinity sits Cook’s character (Mugsy), a helpless waiter who just wants to open a restaurant of his own day, even if it does happen to be from a toilet in Mile End. Cook himself superbly lives up to his billing as a past member of the Oxford Revue and accomplished comic actor; his mastery of timing, gesture and facial expressivity leave the other members of his cast trailing in his wake, perhaps a little too much. While the play clearly calls for Mugsy to be the major source of comic absurdity amidst the deteriorations around him, I felt the other members of the cast did not show the control they could have particularly regarding accents, greater accuracy here could have added a lot the play’s atmosphere.

We start with potatoes. As arguably one always should in any real piece of theatre. Restaurant cook Sweeney (Markian Mysko von Schultze) is preparing for the evening’s work and even while chopping the innocent spuds his sense of frustration at his lot seems emanates across the space. As the first act progresses his performance develops from frustration into sensitivity and biting sarcasm, perhaps his flashes of anger were too telegraphed with the waving of his kitchen knife but overall an impressive performance brought to its climax as von Schultze prises pity from the audience with his pathetic drunken departure during the second act’s poker game. Sex-driven travel enthusiast and occasional waiter Franky (Andy Laithwaite) has immediate command of the space on his entry with a deep voice and impressive physicality and the rapport between himself and Schultze grew to an impressive emotional pitch but left me feeling, as I did for much of the performance, that there must be more to come.

Restaurant owner Stephen (Alexander Stutt) must contend with a lot during his evening at the BT, from a lying son (Carl, played by David Meredith) needing a bail out to a persistently dense Mugsy looking for investment in his Dragons’ Den-esque business scheme. Stutt certainly gives an admirable impression of a worn-down father suffering from the incompetence and inconsistency he founds around him, but it is when his inner frustration boils to the surface that the depth of his character truly emerges and with it Stutt’s talent as an actor. He takes on the responsibility of the play’s emotional pressure-cooker over-heating and delivers a fine performance where restraint and reserve are brutally abandoned. In Cook’s interpretation of the play Carl remains aloof throughout, an effect which begins to frustrate before we reach the poker game where his detachment provides welcome and perfectly balanced relief from the intensity of the other characters.

The facilitator of the play’s emotional meltdown is Ash, a professional poker player invited to join the game by Carl, and somewhat confusingly played by Sanjay Mewada. His highly measured, well enunciated, almost delicate vocal performance appears to jar with the menacing nature of his words themselves. There were moments at which this was highly effective and the calm evenness of his delivery served to powerfully intimidate but at times I was left wondering whether Mewada was entirely comfortable in his role which seemed to demand a little more than he was prepared to give.

The headlines once again: This is a play that will make you roar and even catch you unawares with moments of brutal emotional honesty. With the run in its infancy, it was held back by the disjuncture between actors who never quite seemed to act as a cast but more as individuals. That said not a line went astray in over two hours of intrigue, alcohol and rage which promises a huge amount just as the show does. With practice and increased cohesion Dealer’s Choice will become a must see. I’d bet on it.

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