Tales from the Blackjack

“Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?”

After a successful stint at Preston’s up and coming Tringe Festival in 2009, Richard Holdsworth’s Tales from the Blackjack secures itself a three-day slot at The Lowry, Manchester. Receiving abundant praise from the Lancashire media a year ago, the production has developed somewhat from the two-man project that it began as: Holdsworth and fresh-out-of-university actor Alex Moran have traded their humble pub venue for a chic studio space, and the production team has grown to include director Graham Easterlow (of Dead Square Productions) and Preston-based writer Luke Murray.

The play aims to provide an insight into the dangerous highs and lows of the gambling realm, exploring the stories of character Mary, a once-savvy business woman pushed to the brink of prostitution by her gambling needs, Mr Chang the infamous unlucky lucky Chinese man, local Mitchell Brother ‘Big Baz’ and most poignantly, The Croupier himself. All four characters of this one-man show are portrayed by Moran with zealous energy and enthusiasm.  The nimble actor launches himself about the stage in a heavily physical routine and strikes a happy medium of a potentially difficult balance: his effective use of the space and relentless energy fills the stage, never allowing it to seem bare (a danger that all one-man shows face) yet simultaneously Moran ensures that throughout the forty-five minute production, all eyes are firmly on him. The young actor does impeccably well at creating the buzz comparable to the casino ‘highs’, and his switches between characters are clearly executed – my only request would be that he slows his speech slightly. Otherwise, the never-faltering pace makes for an incredibly engaging performance.

All of Holdsworth characters have their own distinctive features – made all the more apparent by Moran’s physicality and rapidly shifting accents – however some could benefit from a little more development. I adore The Croupier’s nasty but nice personality and the mischievous role that he takes on as the narrator, but personally the character of Mary doesn’t quite push my buttons. The danger with a male actor portraying the opposite sex is that there is always an underlying current of humour, and with the dark nature of Mary’s story I wonder if a little more grit would just provide that tale with a further level? It might just be the ‘Berlin-effect’ still rattling around in my system, but the production has a very real potential to explore the real dangers of gambling if it would only take a few more risks and delve deeper into Mary’s desperate state – remove the light-heartedness surrounding prostitution and it’ll already be half way there.

The piece is peppered deliciously with musicality; the biomechanical movement piece that opens the show to The Killer’s is one of the moments that just work perfectly, demonstrating how right the team can get it when all elements simply ‘click’. I also personally revelled in the inclusion of nursery rhymes throughout – the twist on The 3 Little Pigs is great, although the ending has altered considerably from what I remember as a wee lass! However my favourite little touch overall (intentional or not) is the parallels drawn between ‘Wilson’ the ominous Casino manager and Harold Pinter’s infamous character of the same name. On every mention I can’t help but draw comparisons between Holdsworth’s creation and the omnipotent threat that Wilson poses in Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter; acting as the true puppeteer in the lives of Moran’s sorry characters.

The great thing about this production is its potential to grow and develop constantly. With a string of festival performances lined up across the UK, Tales from the Blackjack finds itself in a state of flux – and I mean this only positively. With the best of the UK’s theatre festivals acting as the production’s playground, I have no doubt that with a little experimentation the play will evolve into something truly superb.  It’s already got a damn good hand.

Tales from the Blackjack will be performing at the Buxton Fringe Festival between 17th and 21st July, as well as at C Central’s ‘Blue Room’ venue throughout the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, 6th – 30th August 2010. For more information see the Dead Square Productions website.