A good hand but a few cards short of a full deck

Dealer's Choice National Theatre, Cottesloe

It's a literary game, poker, as anyone who has ever penetrated Anita Brookner's "school" in South Ken will readily attest. Through the thick fug from Anita's incessant cheroots, you can dimly discern her gambling buddies: Alan "a couple of deals before dawn" Bennett, Candia McWilliam (mistress of the "Texas Holdem"), a 10-gallon-hatted Isaiah Berlin and (whenever she's not in Las Vegas) Dame Iris Murdoch.

"What I love about poker," reveals Anita, "is that it's more a metaphor for life than a game." "It's very easy on the feet, too," chips in Bennett, who, inviting Berlin outside for a fight, corroborates the view that poker is essentially a paradigm of male power relationships.

All right, all right, perhaps not. It's the high-testosterone brigade (Mamet, Amis, Holden) who have equipped poker with its literary intellectual image, not your Prousts. Applying now for admission to the former group is Patrick Marber. His first play, Dealer's Choice, premiered now in his own assured, skilfully performed traverse-stage production at the Cottesloe, makes you privy to an all-male poker school.

Presided over by a restaurateur, Stephen (Nicholas Day), the school is populated by his younger employees: waiter Mugsy (Nigel Lindsay), who certainly doesn't think from a full deck and has dreams of converting a Mile End Road toilet into a trendy eatery; the cook Sweeney (Ray Winstone), a divorcee with access problems; and Phil Daniels's ferrety would-be philanderer. The school is unorthodox to the extent that there's a no-smoking rule, a beer-mat regulation, and a carefully ironed green baize cloth. Stephen will be introducing a swear box next, you feel, for there's something control-freaky about him.

His difficult relationship with his son, Carl (David Bark-Jones), a shifty former public schoolboy and a compulsive gambler, is the most inwardly felt in the play and drives it to the climactic gamble. In Stephen, Marber shows you a father who, on one level, is genuinely appalled by how his son has developed, needing to be bailed out of horrendous debt. On another, he evidently sees in Carl the self he was too timid to become: the romantic all-or-nothing failure who at least played with the big boys, not just kitchen staff small fry. So there's an awkward combination of indignation and jealousy in his attitude to the prodigal son.

Matters come to a head with the arrival of Ash (Tom Georgeson), a dour professional gambler who has been Carl's Mephistophelean mentor and who has come for the four grand the boy owes him. Posing as an unlikely former schoolteacher, Ash infiltrates the game in the hope of winning the outstanding sum. While it would be wrong to give this game away (so to speak), it's worth noting that the vertiginous chanciness of the climax cleverly shows you the genetic source of Carl's compulsions.

It's also fair to say that the poker game, played in the second half with visibly blank cards, lacks tension, as does the drama throughout. The stakes would be raised if the relationship between Ash and Carl were more psychologically complicated, not to say kinky. For a first play, though, this is very stylish, funny, and enjoyable.

n Box-office: 071-928 2252

Paul Taylor

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor