Patrick Marber’s three act play Dealer’s Choice is in many ways a well-chosen piece for an actor’s showcase. It presents the five students of Guildhall with a short production and six equally weighted parts with some potential character development. In some way though, it is also a restrictive choice – is there enough to allow the students to bring out their own individual style? Or is this actually a play in which the actors can go through the motions and deliver a competent yet completely forgettable performance? Throughout most of Dealer’s Choice, one can internally debate whether the lacklustre story or the inexperienced cast cause the mind to wander. But after the last few minutes of the second half and based on Mike Alfreds’ direction, the answer becomes much more obvious.
Sweeney (George Edwards), Mugsy (Michael Levi Harris) and Frankie (Marcello Cruz) all work in a restaurant and partake in a weekly poker game that Stephen (Nicholas Richardson), the restaurant’s owner, is only too happy to host. Stephen’s wayward son Carl (Benjamin Oldham) is also a regular participant, despite his addictive personality and lack of independent finances. Unbeknownst to his father, Carl invites card shark Ash (Carl Stone) to the game one evening in an attempt to clear some of the debt on his head.
Amelia Jane Hankin presents a straightforward set with no frills or confusingly ambiguous devices – one half is the restaurant, the other half the kitchen. Not unlike this design, the direction and general atmosphere feel a bit empty. The arguments in the first half are muted and flat – Oldham as Carl should be much more aggravated by his father, Stephen, as should Frankie (Cruz) when trying to persuade Sweeney (Edwards) to play in that night’s game. The script presents an opportunity for building the tension here, with both arguments superimposed onto each other. But the delivery is too straight-laced with a combination of poor judgement from Alfreds and inexperience from the cast. Alfreds seems so determined for the delivery to be accurate that there is no room for emotion or creative interpretation. Muggsy (Harris) adds some bumbling comedy which generates a few polite titters but nothing more.
As a saving grace at the end of the half, Ash (Stone) enters and suddenly the dynamic changes. The resulting second half is improved but not flawless; a bubbling tension between Ash and Stephen slowly builds into a heated climax at the peak of the play. Finally the closing few minutes of the show have what the remainder was lacking. The pauses in this final argument have depth and meaning, whereas the rest are simply and awkward vacuous space.
Of all the card games, poker evokes some of the strongest, most addictive emotions – extreme highs can be swiftly counteracted by a single bad hand and the player hitting rock bottom. Yet whilst the subject matter may in itself be an adrenaline rollercoaster, this play does not deliver to the same level. “How can you pass aces”? exclaims a dejected Muggsy; he seems perplexed at how a player is often forced to give up on an extraordinary hand. Has this team given up on this production before the game really gets going? Hopefully not. Hopefully this is just a bad round before the big win comes along.
Dealer’s Choice is playing Milton Court Studio Theatre until 11 February 2016. For more information and tickets, see www.gsmd.ac.uk/music