Arts: A few cards short of the full deck

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IN THE rather less than bustling village in which I grew up, the weekly blaze of feverish activity centred upon a whist drive. For readers under the age of 90 who may never have heard of such a thing, I should explain that this possibly extinct activity consisted of a session of competitive card playing not unlike gin rummy, the game which fuels the, er, action of The Gin Game.

In an attempt to entice serious theatregoers, the publicity proudly announces that DL Coburn's play won the Pulitzer Prize. If that's the case, I'm massively relieved that I didn't have to sit through the other nominations. It may date from 1977 but it's so old-fashioned I had an ice-cream in the interval.

On Robin Don's beautifully dishevelled front porch of an old people's home, Weller (Joss Ackland) shambles about in disgruntled fashion before settling down to cheating at a hand of patience. Enter Dorothy Tutin as Fonsia - their names alone suggest the writing's strained, would-be quirky charm - who immediately embarks on exposition. She has only been there three weeks so Weller conveniently explains everything to her and us.

He has little time for the other inmates - "one half is shaking so godamm much they can't focus, the other half is asleep" - a fact picked up on by the design. Peep through the French windows at the back and you can see a sitting room in which two motionless grey heads jut out above the back of a sofa, a piece of set dressing that is certain to be among the nominations for this year's for "Most Creative Use of Wigs" award.

Fortunately, there is more activity downstage as events turn into a battle of elderly wills over increasingly vitriolic card games. It's touching, but a very long way from Dealer's Choice.

The programme boasts dozens of starrily cast productions worldwide, but that says more about the dearth of decent roles for actors over 65 than the quality of the play which is little more than an excuse for good acting. With veteran director Frith Banbury managing to pace everything to perfection, that's precisely what you get. His well-judged production has a place for everything and everything is in its place.

Every early assertion about independence is later blown apart by personal revelations under pressure as Weller - a kind of foul-mouthed Ironside sans wheelchair - proves himself to be a tyrannically bad loser.

Poor terrorised Fonsia struggles to retain her dignity but finally descends to Weller's level and cries "fuck". If that scandalises but secretly thrills you, book now.

David Benedict

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