JAMES STANIFORTH reads this play’s poker-face. Straight flush.
Corpus Playroom, 13th-17th March, £5-6
An effervescent production, full of sparkling wit and with a complex finish, Dealer’s Choice is a sure-fire bet. An assured exploration of the dynamics of addiction, compulsion and deception, this play balances both light and dark elements with dexterity.
It is important not to underemphasise just how much Patrick Marber’s text is responsible. The script is exceptional, delivering its comedic payload whilst attentively investing its characters with a genuine richness which tells as the play progresses. The plot bubbles with a satisfying intensity as a complex web of associations develop, building steadily towards an unexpectedly hard-hitting climax.
Pleasingly though, there was more to this production than the script. Marber’s smart, sparky dialogue with its sharp comic turns was handled firmly by a lively sextet of actors. Each cast member demonstrated a controlled energy of speech and gesture which between them generated an engaging chemistry.
The text’s ironic word-play and heavier subject matter were married nicely by this accomplished troupe of players. Jamie Hansen gave a sprightly and invigorating performance as Mugsy, deftly bounding about the stage with infective enthusiasm.
Guy Woolf was truly outstanding as Stephen, delivering his lines with a rare, tempered finesse. This performance in particular bound the production together and is entirely worth your time. The opening two acts were not yet flawless, the acting occasionally feeling overly tight and lacking a sense of expressive freedom, albeit briefly.
The first half of Dealer’s Choice has a razor-sharp levity about it, run through with a vibrant comic dialogue in which the characters swiftly trade verbal blows. This stands in stark contrast to the second half in which much of the humour falls away to expose the more serious subject matter.
This is a play about gambling and Marber confronts the issue with appropriate severity. The transition between these phases, by which the playwright raises the stakes, seemed to rumble the cast somewhat. With all the characters gathered around the poker table for the final showdown the stage should have been a flourishing hub of concentrated tension, action and reaction.
Unfortunately, at points the pressure generated through the first half fell flat and the intensity dissipated. Such moments were, however, transitory.
The climax of the script drew a fiery response from the actors involved. The confrontational pairings of Stephen and Ash (Matt Reizenstein) and Stephen and Carl (Stephen Bailey) proved explosive, propelling the message of the play home with ballistic energy. These final scenes provided a one-two punch with a lasting emotive impact.
The flaws of this production are minor and remediable. Its achievements, by contrast, are extensive and impressive. An uncommon pairing of a great script with a great production team, Dealer’s Choice is an evening well-spent. A thoughtful and intelligent comedy with a hard edge, this is a play worth putting your chips on.