POKER AND PATERNITY: A WOMAN QUIETLY DESPAIRS…
Poker, like good drama, requires an ability to transmit or conceal “tells”: moments of facial or body language revealing or hiding truth. So it’s no bad subject for a play. And if you belong to a poker school, if smoky late-night strategy and risk is your drug of choice – controllable or addictive – this 1995 play will be half treat and half Awful Warning.
Staged at the National Theatre in 1995, and written by Patrick Marber (whose screen persona throughout the Alan Partridge series always did tend towards a pallid, sleepless, morosely superior unwholesomeness) it has a blokey, high-testosterone feeling. Interestingly, that same year Jez Butterworth’s gangster-nostalgic MOJO came out – maybe the disillusioned late-Major years were fertile ground for chic, weary machismo.
Today, its story of one day and night in a restaurant whose staff – all male – have a Sunday night poker game with the proprietor feels a little dated, off-kilter. Indeed when in between braggartly poker-chat even the most sympathetic character, casually asks his mate “Did you give it one or not? The blonde bit?” and Frankie replies “Got the clap”, I found myself strangely glad to know that since then, cool blonde Victoria Coren has wiped the floor with all such wannabe Cincinnati Kids by becoming European poker champion – twice. Ha!
Enough of this female wincing: what about the play ? The long first half sets up personalities: Stephen the wearily paternal boss (Richard Hawley, in a fine performance reminiscent of Roger Allam) is at the centre. His gambling-addict son Carl, who he sees only at the weekly game, is played with nice defiant vulnerability by Oliver Coopersmith; the chef Sweeney is Carl Prekopp, an access-Daddy struggling not to gamble away the money and sleep-hours he needs to take his small daughter to the zoo in the morning. The two waiters are Frankie, dreaming of Vegas, and the even more delusional Mugsy: a moronic enthusiast for poker triumphs and business dreams played with manic, writhing, enjoyable overstatement by Cary Crankson. He is trying to get funding to turn a public lavatory on the Mile End Road into a restaurant. Which these days, would be a hipster haven and get backers in no time; in the play the idea is the source of rich and enjoyable mockery. Indeed Crankson carries, almost singlehanded, all the best verbal comedy. And good it is: Marber cracks out some beautiful lines especially for Mugsy.
Into this group intrudes Ash (Ian Burfield, deploying a sort of still violence which is genuinely unsettling). He is a professional gambler determined to fleece them, and get the hapless Carl or his father to pay a big poker debt. The second and more tautly strung act, sharply staged by director Michael Longhurst, sees them all at the baize table in the basement. Conveying the sense of a long night, scenelets are broken by balletic jerky moves, amplified rattling of chips and slapping of cards, and demonic lightning-flashes on pale tense faces. The men’s various fates conclude, though it is hard to care much about any of them except Stephen. And that owes much to Hawley’s tired, likeable, damaged loneliness. Would like to see more of him.
BOX OFFICE 01604 624811 TO 14 June