Dealer’s Choice is a witty and blackly comic production. In the basement of an empty London restaurant, a weekly staff poker game is in full swing; quick-handed, straight-faced, keen to gain the upper hand, the play is fuelled not only by shifting money but shifting power in the midst of a tangled web of relationships.
Mugsy, a cockney geezer addicted to losing, has big plans for converting a supposedly ‘spacious’ public toilet block into a fancy French restaurant. Played by Cameron Cook, who skilfully negotiates both actor and director of the play, Mugsy’s character provides the laughs. Playfully mocked and belittled by his sardonic boss Steven (Alexander Stutt) a ‘semi’ successful owner of the restaurant, is skeptical of Mugsey’s pursuits as well as those of his son Carl, who is heavily in debt and to his mind a grave disappointment. The cast displayed cohesion and the ability to rebound effortlessly off one another, creating the comfortable, family-like relationship where insults are interlaced with sarcasm: these were well-received on the night by the audience.
Patrick Marber’s writing has elements of light-hearted banter, which suddenly escalate into scenes of tension and rage. The actors hone in on the precariousness of this balance. Kitchen scenes were particularly effective in providing rapid exchanges strewn with a wit: Markian Mysko von Schultze’s performance of Sweeny was particularly memorable.
The intimate space of the Burton Taylor theatre was split in two but the set lacked a keen attention to aesthetics. Lighting distinguished conversations carried out in the cluttered kitchen from those in the slick front of house.
The second half saw a transformation in the set and a turn in events as the poker game played out. When executed well, the fast-paced passages of the game reached their peak as the stakes were upped, only to be brought down with flashes of bathos injected by Mugsy. Occasionally, timing was off and the performance lacked direction.
Dealer’s Choice is an engaging production with a wicked sense of humour. It had the audience in stitches and successfully handled the themes of power, manipulation and fate underpinned by a masculine obsession for the game of poker. It is a sure bet that we will see much more of Cook in future, since he dealt the audience a very good hand indeed.