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

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