Gripping performance of Dealer’s Choice

Dealer's Choice at the Devonshire Park Theatre SUS-160330-120942001
Dealer's Choice at the Devonshire Park Theatre SUS-160330-120942001

Brighton-based company ‘talking Scarlet’ brought this critically acclaimed play to Eastbourne for three days this week as part of short national tour.

On Tuesday, director/designer, Patric Kearns, no stranger to Devonshire Park, and due to the indisposition of billed actor, Neil Roberts, also played the part of Stephen, owner of the restaurant where the action of the play takes place.

Written by Patrick Marber this was the first play he also directed when it opened at the National Theatre in 1995. Based around a game of poker, partly inspired by Marber’s own experiences with gambling addiction, it has gone on to garner accolades for twenty years. With just six male actors this might be termed a ‘man’s play’ (if there is such a thing) and whilst the often-portrayed men-only excesses of drinking, gambling, coarse reference to the opposite sex and swearing, there are enough four-letter words to sink a tramp steamer, Marber’s play more importantly addresses human nature at its most guarded and exposed.

The set in the first act, with clever lighting, switches from restaurant dining-room to kitchen and back again. Here chef Sweeney (Ben Crowe), and waiters Mugsy (Matthew Zilch) and Frankie (Samuel Clemens), both wannabe entrepreneurs, bicker and banter prior to their weekly poker session which takes place after the food has been served. Marber’s mastery of contemporary dialogue is devastatingly accurate. Especially in the Cockney wit of Mugsy who explains he is thinking of opening his own restaurant in a converted public toilet and receives the reply that it would probably give new meaning to the expression ‘convenience food’. Such comic asides feature constantly and hint at Marber’s early career as a stand-up comedian. But never far below the surface is the brooding presence of paternal restauranteur, Stephen (Patric Kearns), and the relationship with his vulnerable debt-laden son, Carl (Griffin Stevens). Their initial exchange of family pleasantries soon degenerates into full-scale desperation as each recognises their own fragilities.

In Act II the action moves to the basement for the weekly poker game. Here the regulars are joined by shady professional player, Ash (David Keyes), who has been dining but professes to know Carl from their schooldays. Like all games, poker has its own jargon and while the nuances of the dealer’s choice of cards are accurately enacted it does not matter if the audience is not similarly addicted to a game which has been described as chess with cards.

One thing that is certain is the devastating effect gambling can have on lives. This production, grippingly staged and performed, underlines the haunting truth that in life there can never be any winners or losers. By Roger Paine.