Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Sunday 26th January 2014
Patrick Marber’s award-winning comedy is resurrected in the Ron Barber Studio by a talented all-male cast under the astute direction of Andrew Smith. Set in a restaurant, the action involves the anticipation of a weekly poker school before, in the third act, the poker school itself takes place.
Marber’s script is very funny and allows the actors to build credible and rounded characterisations. There is Mark Grady as rough-and-ready cook Sweeney, anxious to keep some money aside to spend on his daughter; Frankie (James David Knapp) dreams of travelling to Las Vegas and hitting the big time on the tables; joker in the pack Mugsy (an excellent Mark Payne) seeks funding for his own restaurant, a public toilet conversion that doesn’t sound very palatable; and boss man Stephen the restaurateur (Dave Hill). Added to this bunch is Stephen’s troubled son, gambling addict Carl (Andrew Elkington) and the quietly menacing Ash (Phil Rea) to whom Carl owes several grand.
Andrew Smith keeps the banter tearing along, managing crescendos and silences like a maestro. Some of the rapid-fire cross-cutting between kitchen and restaurant needs a little bit of tightening but this was only the second performance of the run so I expect that will be sorted – This is a slick, well-oiled production with something of the atmosphere of Mojo currently in the West End and, yes, something of the high quality of that show too.
Hill and Elkington have the most emotional moments as father and son, negotiating their relationship over sums of cash borrowed or given. Hill is rather touching in his portrayal, playing his cards close to his chest, you might say. Elkington too is very strong in his selfish outbursts. Grady and Knapp provide comedy and pathos – we see how far these men are steeped in their gambling pursuits, and Rea, the ostensible villain of the piece, does a nice line in understated as well as unequivocal threat. But for me the energy of the performance stems mainly from Mark Payne’s characterisation of the hapless dreamer Mugsy. We take delight and have pity in his ups and downs. It’s a detailed and effective study in comic playing. Sonia Chopra’s set is flexible in its economy – the stairs painted like playing cards are a nice touch – and nothing gets in the way of the cast,
Cards on the table time: if you’re looking for a couple of hours’ worth of excellent, enjoyable drama, Dealer’s Choice is very much a safe bet.