Corpus Lateshow, 7pm, until Sat 17th March
For the characters of Patrick Marber’s 1995 play ‘Dealer’s Choice’, poker is not only the highlight of their week, but the focal point of their lives, creating a microcosm of human hope, despair, and sheer, brutal luck. The best thing about Josh Stamp-Simon’s production, however, is that you don’t need to understand a thing about poker to be totally caught up in the taut suspense of the action. This is due partly to the fluid pacing of the material and partly to the skilful comic timing and emotional range of the performances.
During the first few minutes of the performance, the delivery of Marber’s carefully observed dialogue seems a little lacklustre, but this changes to accompany a building momentum, as the characters’ masochistic excitement at the prospect of casting their hopes onto the green baize grows over the course of Acts 1 and 2. The stand-out performance belongs to Guy Woolf, who ranges seamlessly between the roles of assured, laceratingly witty businessman and conflicted, transgression-ridden father figure in a superbly understated and mature performance. Special mention also goes to Jamie Hansen, whose good-natured idiot Mugsy charms and irritates, hilarious in his wildly misplaced optimism (planning to establish a restaurant on the premises of a public lavatory) and achingly human in the way that his desire to win in a game of luck ignites a spark of hope in a life of tedium and drudgery. However, it is ultimately an ensemble piece which relies on familiarity for easy chemistry, and all the actors inhabit their characters totally in an atmosphere which blends camaraderie and rivalry to potent effect. The set is fairly sparse and flexible, as one might expect in the intimate, versatile space of the Corpus Playroom, and distractions are kept to a minimum. Despite fairly little movement or physical action, the play manages to maintain tension which never veers towards stasis. Furthermore, the often unexpected laughs both give respite and add momentum throughout, even in the climactic third act.
Granted, there was the occasional first-night fumble, (unsurprising when dealing with dialogue so laced with poker terminology that this reviewer would be shocked if anyone actually managed to keep track of what was going on in the game) but presumably such minor errors will be ironed out in subsequent performances. All in all, ‘Dealer’s Choice’ is exactly the kind of production which you want to witness at the end of a long and tiring term – painful, tense, and yet very, very funny.