REVIEW: Dealer’s Choice, raising the emotional stakes

The cast of Dealer's Choice
The cast of Dealer's Choice

Losing hurts. So why go back for more?

The latest in the Made In Northampton season at Royal & Derngate, Dealer’s Choice by Patrick Marber examines the driving force that keeps gamblers gambling whether they are winners or whether they are losers.

The play, directed by Michael Longhurst, opens as staff at a London restaurant get ready for a Sunday night’s work. But the real business of the evening is the poker school, which goes on in the basement after hours.

For Stephen, the restaurant owner, the game is his only chance to spend time with his son Carl. Carl needs to make some money to pay off gambling debts racked up elsewhere.

Waiter, Frankie, has plans to go to Nevada to become a professional gambler and Ash is the real thing, it’s just that he’s in debt and living in a bedsit instead of living it up on the Las Vegas Strip.

Chef, Sweeney, wants to summon up enough willpower to stick to his guns over not taking part in the game because he is taking his little girl to the zoo in the morning and also because he knows he will lose.

Then there’s Mugsy. Trusting, child-like, enthusiastic, desperate to win, but proud of being a good loser.

The drama hits its stride when the players stop talking about playing and get down to the game. There is more at stake than money and this is what makes the cards really matter. In this way the moment Frankie takes a £50 note from his pocket and hands it to Sweeney without a word of protest becomes an awful betrayal of friendship.

They play “dealer’s choice” where whoever deals as they go clockwise around the table chooses the variant of poker they will play. I’ve looked this up. I have no knowledge of card games. The tale is skilfully told however, so that those, like me, who would not know a good hand in poker from a hole in the ground are still swept along with each turn of the card.

Some aspects of the staging are almost film-like, with the stage set up for the opening act like a split screen, with the lighting taking us from one to the other in a sequence which gathers pace as the emotional stakes are raised. This idea also works well in the poker game scenes when the actors occasionally “fast-forward” through the long night of play before pausing to allow us to catch up with the action.

The most engaging character is Mugsy, sweetly played by Cary Crankson. He portrays a young man full of uncertainty but trying to bluff his way as best he can with enthusiasm and bravado

Much of the humour of the play comes from him and his bold plan to open a French or Italian restaurant in a toilet on the Mile End Road.

I particularly liked Ian Burfield as Ash during the poker game. His body language showing a man entirely comfortable and assured about what he is doing. He is a man at work.

And at the centre of it all is Richard Hawley as Stephen bringing out the contrasts in a man who is in one moment in control and managing the game and yet when pushed is revealed as such an addict that he would risk thousands on a toss of a coin.

Dealer’s Choice is at Royal & Derngate in Northampton until June 14. No need to gamble, it’s a pretty sure thing.