Marber's poker game deserves full house

Bennett said it felt like entering a marrow and being given the cucumber prize
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The Independent Culture
IT WAS Hugh Leonard's The Poker Session back in the 1960s that first hinted at the game's theatrical potential. But for a play that decisively promotes it to centre stage as a mechanism for dramatising power relationships, we have had to wait for Patrick Marber's Dealer's Choice. The National Theatre has found itself a new writer-director. This is a hugely accomplished debut.

As one of the scriptwriters of On the Hour and Knowing Me, Knowing You, Marber is not exactly starting cold, and Thursday's opening was stiff with his television fans, expecting a riot of laughs. They were not disappointed. Here we are in a restaurant kitchen where one of the waiters, Mugsy (Nigel Lindsay), is unveiling his plans to open an establishment of his own: a centrally located property on the Mile End Road, going cheap, very spacious - a disused public lavatory, in fact. Mugsy ploughs on through the crescendo of sniggers.

The barrage of lethally timed one-liners from the rest of the staff - Sweeney the chef (Ray Winstone) and Frankie the second waiter (Phil Daniels) - has no effect on the unstoppable Mugsy, but they certainly slay the house. At which point, Marber moves from the kitchen into the dining-room and halts the comedy dead in its tracks. We now meet the owner, Stephen (Nich-olas Day), a wryly intelligent gentleman restaurateur with a wastrel son (Carl) whom he only sees at the weekly poker game. Carl has gambling debts of £4,000; when his creditor drops in, they cut him in for the game that makes up the second act.

The set-up is beautifully prepared. Bunny Christie's divided set presents a working-class and middle-class zone on which rows and climaxes develop in parallel, alongside marital perspectives and parent-child alienation (Sweeney is another weekend daddy). During working hours, the amiable Stephen is prone to bursts of fury, showing who's boss. But come the all- night poker session and he simply becomes another player. For non-players like me, the game is wonderfully handled. The calls may sound like gibberish, but you can follow every move in the ruthless elimination game, as the table revolves and the taciturn intruder takes the amateurs inexorably to the cleaners. Sweeney loses the money for his daughter's outing. Frankie, a would-be professional player, is defeated by a bluff call. One by one, their dreams go up in smoke. The atmosphere is murderously violent, but it is all contained within the act of gambling: which also reveals the weakness of Stephen, as a timid control-freak, and the invincible visitor (a chilling Tom Georgeson), as a hounded small-timer. The play is full of poker lore; what it demonstrates, through a switchback of farce and despair, is that whatever your winnings, there is always some other game in which you will be the mug. Unmissable.

Readers of Alan Bennett will know about his 1971 ordeal, when he was locked out of rehearsals for Getting On so that the star, Kenneth More, could beautify the irascible hero into a thoroughly decent chap; after which the show went on to win an Evening Standard award for the best comedy of the year. Bennett said it felt like entering a marrow and being given the cucumber prize. Perhaps through a sneaking suspicion that More had been right, however disgraceful his methods, there has been no main-stage revival of what Bennett anyway went on to dismiss as "a bad play".

None of which has deterred Prunella Scales from bringing it back with the aim of honouring Bennett's intentions. What her production reveals is a play about middle-age disenchantment in the private life of a public man. George Oliver is a Labour MP with a run-down, working-class constituency and a nice Edwardian home in Highgate. He is an honest Socialist who dislikes most of the people he meets. George is well aware of that contradiction, but unable to control his blistering tongue - which has estranged him from his teenage son and left his wife ready to drop into the arms of a visiting handyman.

If you want decisive plotting, you will be disappointed. There is no adultery climax. Brian, George's Tory friend, is blackmailed into resigning his seat but he has a family firm to fall back on. A cancer scare turns out to be a false alarm. George is nervously waiting for a taxi: it fails to arrive, but he finds one on the street. These are not weaknesses: Bennett is simply keeping the narrative afloat by hinting at conventional developments and then quietly pushing them aside. By this means he generates interest in the humdrum spectacle of life going on as usual, with no life-changing climaxes: yielding moments of insight that are enough to cause pain and dismay, but not enough to change what we are.

Wisely he has done nothing to update the play politically, with the result that you see it through a double time perspective. Just as George looks back yearningly to the post-war pioneers of the Welfare State and the NHS, so we now look back to his age as the last link between politics and the common human bond before everything went up for sale.

The young characters remain flimsy projections of middle-aged envy. Otherwise, Scales's company (notably Kate Lynn Evans and Chrisopher Strauli) piercingly evoke the sense of people contemplating their fading hopes in the midst of a busy morning. Timothy West plays George in a state of simmering exasperation which turns the environment into his enemy: his collisions with the furniture and entanglements with the phone lead and the neighbour's dogprompt some of the funniest and most searching speeches Bennett has ever written. What a chance Kenneth More threw away.

Caradog Prichard's Full Moon, which I reviewed in Clwyd last year, transfers to the Young Vic with undiminished magic. At once a homecoming and a preparation for suicide, it recreates Welsh village life after the 1914 war from a child's viewpoint that combines the domestic and the transcendental. What makes the show is the coupling of Prichard's Bardic realism with Helena Kaut-Howson's expressionistic staging. On Sophie Jump's sloping traverse set, remembered events have the speed and physical conviction of a dream, as past joys and horrors burst through the doors of a memory box, and angels mingle with scuffling boys in the mind of the dreamer (Jon Strickland). Richard Blackford's haunting score underlines the sense of a meeting between The Mabinogion and Chagall.

Emily Woof, a small, fragile figure with unlooked-for resources of sensuality and pounding anger, is certainly the star attraction in Neil Bartlett's production of Romeo and Juliet. Whether her Juliet offers sufficient pretext for a revival that abandons Verona and the street gangs, robs the Nurse of comedy, reduces Capulet to a one-gestured boomer, and has the tomb- breaking Romeo (Stuart Bunce) taking a crowbar to the bedstead, is another question.

`Dealer's Choice': Cottesloe, SE1, 071-928 2252. `Getting On': West Yorks, 0532 442111, to 11 Mar. `Full Moon': Young Vic, SE1, 071-928 6363, to 4 Mar. `Romeo': Lyric, W6, 081-741 2311, to 11 Mar.