Review

Dealer's Choice

Patrick Sunners and Chris Janes
Patrick Sunners & Chris Janes

I got the feeling that this production was, perhaps, a bridge too far for some of the audience who attended on the same night as me at least. Some of the older members in particular seemed to be on a roller coaster ride between the swearing which frequently punctuates the dialogue of this play, judging by the various noises and grimaces they emitted at each outburst. This is fine, of course, if you don't mind upsetting anyone who feels that there is no place for such language in the theatre, and can also put up with it being the main topic of conversation afterwards (if not during). It's a shame, but that's all they'll probably remember the play for.

Had I been reviewing the play for the London fringe, I probably wouldn't have mentioned it at all. I nearly didn't here, but as this is a review for COPS I think it's important to consider the impact you're having on your audience as a local amateur dramatics group. If you're trying to make the transition from mainstream to fringe remember that the audience has got to make the transition as well, which may mean losing some of your traditional clientele. The night I was there I think one or two were nearly lost from heart attacks! A warning on the programme at least may have been appropriate.

Enough of that, however, let's get to the important stuff! Dealer's Choice is a very male play, in more ways than one, and it was interesting to see that it was directed by a woman. Full marks for bravery go to Claudia McKelvey both in her choice of play and her direction of the all-male cast in a very testosterone-fuelled story. It's a play about the addiction to gambling, which apparently the author had been through, the way it affects families and relationships, and attitudes to winning and losing in life.

Andy Lee, Chris Janes & Patrick Sunners
Andy Lee, Chris Janes & Patrick Sunners

All six members of the cast put in strong performances and it's a credit to them that they took their opportunities to shine afforded them by a very well structured script. All of the characters are essentially tragic, but the play remains a comedy and the humour was very well delivered in this production as a relief from the dark side. A lot of the focus for this humour is Mugsy, the hapless yet still charismatic waiter, very nicely played by Chris Janes. He was the only character who I ended up having much sympathy for, despite his ill-conceived plan to turn a dilapidated public toilet in the Mile End Road into a restaurant. This is the plum part of the play, and we weren't let down for a moment by the performance.

The relationship between the father and son (Stephen, played by David Harrold and Carl, played by Andy Howell) was crucial to the dynamics of the play and was very well established by the actors. A lot of the dialogue is very taught and brisk and not easy to deliver in the punchy way that the script demands. It is made more technically difficult at times by the inter-cutting of what's happening between these two in the restaurant with what's going on in the kitchen. When two arguments are taking place at the same time it would be easy for the tension to snap and become clumsy, but overall I felt this was well handled and quite finely tuned. Credit for this should go to the director, as well as the actors.

In the kitchen, apart from Mugsy, we also have the chef (Sweeney, played by Andy Lee) and another waiter (Frankie, played by Patrick Sunners). These two spend most of their time winding up Mugsy and making jokes at his expense, but we also learn of the mundanity of all their lives revolving as they do largely around the restaurant and the excitement of the weekly poker game on Sunday nights. It all goes to create a quite seedy atmosphere as we learn how they are variously indebted to Stephen, who owns the restaurant and dominates the poker. None of them is more indebted to him than his son, however, who seems to have the major gambling problem.

Ray Newton & Andy Howell
Ray Newton & Andy Howell

Into this mix is introduced Ash (played by Ray Newton) who appears to be a customer of the restaurant, but is really there to collect a gambling debt owed to him by Carl. Ash is suitably menacing, dry and dare I say poker faced, again very nicely played. The first half of the play is given over to establishing the various relationships and was achieved, I felt, in a very accomplished manner. The stage was split very neatly in half between kitchen and restaurant, the only minor point perhaps being that the restaurant didn't look quite as swish as the dialogue sometimes suggested, but I appreciate the limitations of space.

The second half of the play is devoted to the poker game and how the game itself reflects the fortunes of the respective gamblers, which I will not go into at any great length. This act introduces several major peaks of conflict which make the play's most telling points. The relationship between father and son, the tragic-comedy of Mugsy's dreams, and the nature of gambling addiction most tellingly illustrated when Stephen is tempted to settle his son's debts by the toss of a coin. The first two, again were well handled in both acting and direction, but the third, another moment of taught dialogue where Ash is taunting Stephen to call 'heads or tails' did snap and fall a little into clumsiness. This was only momentary, however, and did not detract from the overall professionalism of the performance. Again the setting for the poker game, the basement of the restaurant, was neat and made good use of the space, adding a tangibly claustrophobic feel to the atmosphere.

In conclusion I felt that the production was a great success for the whole team and a good example of what can be achieved by a local company who are bold enough to attempt what would normally be considered as 'fringe theatre'. I hope that the postproduction reactions of the audience and fellow COPS members are as favourable and encourage the group to go on to do more adventurous productions in the future.

Review: John Webber
Photographs: Steve Beeston

Dealer's Choice was written by Patrick Marber and directed by Claudia McKelvey. The production was staged at The Little Theatre in 2003.