Having done storming business at the Menier Chocolate Factory, this acclaimed new production of Dealer’s Choice has transferred to the West End in time for Christmas. At first glance, Patrick Marber’s testosterone-fuelled 1995 debut may seem an odd choice for a Christmas show, but watching this new production, there seemed to be a more than a hint of an A Christmas Carol-style redemption story here.
If the original National Theatre production, directed by Marber himself and starring such hard-man cockerney luminaries as Phil Daniels and Ross Boatman, gave a searing picture of tough masculinity’s hidden underbelly at the fag end of 18 years of Tory administration; Sam West’s revival offers a far softer, noughties, metrosexual take on the play’s dynamic.
Reminiscent of the late John Thaw, __ __ as the steely, poker school-running restaurateur, ___, is more Inspector Morse than The Sweeney, while the unfailingly sweet Samuel Barnett doesn't make any surprising transition into East End barrow boy. While the remaining three members of the poker school retain the play's more working class roots, they do so with a softer, less threatening edge than previous productions. Ross Boatman (a long time poker friend of both West and Marber, who played Muggsy in the original production) looks tough, but as ___ has his heart on his sleeve from the word go, with his need to miss the traditional Sunday night game in order to take his estranged daughter out the following day. ___ __'s Muggsy, the comic turn and butt of jokes, is bafflingly camp, to the point of virtually becoming Frank Spencer. Roger Lloyd-Pack, completing the line-up as the professional gambler Ash, to whom __ owes £4,000, while compelling from moment to moment, never fully realises the physical threat that the action of the script suggests.
While some of these decisions might play against more obvious readings of the text, the production remains hugely, thrillingly watchable. The quality of Marber’s writing is just superb - at once tightly constructed, harsh, tender and consistently very funny indeed.