Actor/director Sam West was part of the poker school that inspired Patrick Marber's assured debut play Dealer's Choice, which the author directed at the National in 1995. Now, West turns up trumps with this exhilaratingly funny and emotionally acute revival.
West evinces ever more sharply the gifts of a top-notch director. In Dealer's Choice, these include gathering an idiosyncratically ideal cast; creating a believable yet heightened world on stage; total control of the play's marvellous mood-switches; and a flair for generating atmosphere.
There is, of course, a piquant twist to reviving Dealer's Choice at the Menier Chocolate Factory. The theatre lies below its own very good restaurant. So, during this run, the building is a split-level eaterie, for the play is set in a swanky fictional London restaurant. Here the snooty, headmaster-like proprietor Stephen (excellent Malcolm Sinclair) presides over a weekly poker school including his employees and Carl, his alienated wastrel son (a heart-twistingly injured Samuel Barnett). The latter, a compulsive gambler, has found a mentor and moneylender in Ash (Roger Lloyd Pack), a dour professional player now arrived incognito to collect his debts at the card table.
Full of mangled father-child relationships and masculine bluff, the play found its centre of gravity, in Marber's production, in the Stephen-Carl relationship. In West's account, it's hard to see how Sinclair and Barnett could better convey the sense that the rope of genetic similarity that binds them is precisely what threatens to garrotte their bond. But here, largely thanks to a knock-out comic performance from Stephen Wight, the weight of that is better counterbalanced by the figure of Mugsy, the young head chef who has idiotic dreams of creating a snazzy new restaurant from a large, disused public lavatory on the Mile End Road.
Emphasising why Stephen affects to prefer Mugsy to his son, Wight hilariously communicates the compulsive resilience of this likeable loon. The character's poker technique is to give a running commentary on his own state of mind, replete with a raft of impersonations and a turn of phrase that always manages to get it wrong. West has established this piece as a tragicomic classic.
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