The Theatreguide.London Review
Patrick Marber's 1995 play uses a weekly poker game as the prism through which to view its participants, at first comically and then more seriously.
While it's the sort of play that sometimes seems deeper than it really is - the discovery that each of the players is, in his own way, a loser is a bit glib and predicable - it can be satisfying, and there's a lot of fun to be had along the way.
A few minor updatings (like references to online gambling) suggest that Marber has done some rewriting since the original National Theatre production, and Samuel West's direction emphasises the comedy more than I remember from twelve years ago.
Certainly the first act plays like a particularly good TV sitcom, with the colourful and eccentric characters entertainingly introduced. A restaurant owner joins (and sometimes secretly bankrolls) his staff in a weekly after-hours game. One waiter dreams of moving to Las Vegas and becoming a professional player, another wants to open his own restaurant.
The boss's son is a compulsive gambler constantly being bailed out by his father. The chef tries to skip tonight's game because he's spending tomorrow with his young daughter, but is talked into staying for a few hands. And the boss himself seems to rely on these games as his sole ventures into social contact, especially with his son.
All this is presented lightly - the would-be restaurateur, for example, has his eye on a converted public toilet as his premises - and the comedy of the first act is only slightly darkened by the hints that their various fantasies and failings go deeper than sitcom level.
The involvement of a stranger (with secrets of his own) in the game serves as a catalyst for the darker second act. Watching the men play, we realise that some are driven by the need to win, some by a lust for excitement, and some, sadly, by the addict's need to lose.
What started out as the semi-insulting banter of friends occasionally slips into real ugliness, and no one - including the newcomer - escapes exposure.
You might even be surprised by some of the character revelations, but even if you aren't, they're not such blatant clichés as to be unsatisfactory, and they do provide a solid cast with meaty acting opportunities.
Stephen Wight has the showiest role as the wannabe with so much innocent energy and confidence that he doesn't realise he's one of life's designated losers. Malcolm Sinclair gives the boss a world-weary stoicism that makes the eventual cracking of his shell a surprise, while the quiet menace of Roger Lloyd Pack's newcomer also covers unexpected revelations. Ross Boatman (chef), Jay Simpson (would-be pro) and Samuel Barnett (son) provide solid support.
Samuel West directs with a sure hand for both comedy and drama. There's one particularly impressive sequence in which two separate shouting arguments are going on, so we can't clearly hear what anyone is saying, and yet the essence of both scenes is never lost.
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