Poker. Perhaps the ultimate experience in taking a game of complete chance and creating one of extreme skill. From my later teenager years into my twenties, I would host poker nights with my school friends in our public bar (you knew the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle ran a pub, gentle reader?) John used to pretend to be Edward G Robinson (he’d have the hat to prove it); at the beginning of every game, as we were putting in our starter five pences (or whatever it was, this was a long time ago!) Craig would – without fail – say “you’ve got to be in it to win it”; if he had a good hand Gerry would always giggle uncontrollably; whenever the dealer chose five card stud we’d all say “man’s game”; we’d play Spit in the Ocean with the wild card being the one dealt the first time any of us said “spit” – which would always be Paul, and always on the first card; and nine times out of ten we’d play Baseball – threes and nines are wild, fours get you an extra card, a three up meant you had to match the pot before continuing, and a second three up meant you were automatically out. Another man’s game. It was all an elaborate routine. We knew these ridiculous rules like the backs of our hands; and we would start around midnight and go on until sunrise. Free beer on tap – jukebox on if we wanted – and the Dowager Mrs C would prepare us loads of cheese and ham toasties before she went to bed. Big kids playing at being tough adults. Great days.
Patrick Marber’s engrossing and somewhat disturbing play first hit our stages in 1995 at a time when Mrs C and I didn’t see many plays; and its (relatively) recent revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory took place just before we discovered that marvellous little venue, so this play was new to us. The scene is a rather downmarket little restaurant, run by Stephen, who’s more addicted to poker than catering. Not always a winner but not often a loser, he always has plenty of readies put by to draw on if necessary. His chef, Sweeney, and his waiters and general staff, Frankie and Mugsy, are regulars at his weekly poker nights, as is his son Carl, always on the scrounge for a paternal hand-out due to his excessive gambling. Add to this mix the mysterious Ash, a diner who won’t leave at the end of the evening, and you have six assorted guys assembled for a poker match in the second act. I won’t give away what happens which is partly very surprising and partly quite predictable, so you’ll have to watch the poker game to find out.
Patrick Marber really knows his poker players. I could recognise each of his six characters in my school chums who used to attend our regular nights. The brash, confident one who did ok; the one who seemed sensible then lost big time on ridiculously dangerous decisions; the loud, rather stupid one who continually got away with it; the quiet, reserved one who you never knew how well he was doing; the one whom all the others respected as the main player whether he won or not; and the nervous, difficult one, who was never satisfied. The running commentaries of the games that Mr Marber has his characters providing are virtually identical to the kinds of things we used to say, and reminded me so strongly of the nonsense we used to spout.
He also knows his characters outside of the poker game. The text is full of great insights lightly observed; hidden depths about the characters are exposed in throwaway conversation, like the slightly antagonistic relationship between Sweeney and Frankie, under strain due to their currently living together (probably not in the Biblical sense), or their treatment of Mugsy, part pal, part victim, part stooge. The interplay between Stephen and Carl gives you clues about the behaviour of the third party in that relationship, the unseen wife/mother; and Ash’s intense pressure on both Carl and Stephen not only reveals his own bullying brutality but also Carl’s flimsy flakiness and Stephen’s inner weakness. So even if the plot isn’t that extensive or dynamic, the characterisation is fantastic, and you really get to know them warts and all.
It’s a great production, with evocative sets by Helen Goddard depicting the barren kitchen, lurid but comfortless office and featureless restaurant. The set for the basement poker game is dominated by the centre table where the game is played, the only escape being the narrow brick-walled stairway upwards. The atmosphere of a series of fast-moving, high-stakes games is created by an almost cinematographic rapid mime of the various stages of a game – it reminded me in part of Guys and Dolls’ Crap Shooters Ballet, albeit mainly seated. In the first act there’s also an unnerving sound and lighting plot; when characters move between the kitchen and the office it’s sometimes matched with a loud click and stark lighting changes. But above all, a character-driven play needs a great cast, and that’s certainly what we have here.
Cary Crankson is a brilliant Mugsy. He’s a kind of Everyman figure, downtrodden but trying hard to make the best of himself, with the limited resources he’s got – both financially and intellectually. Irredeemably positive, bobbing back up to the water level no matter how much he’s drowning, it’s a really funny performance, but also emotionally vulnerable. There’s a moment towards the end of the play when you think another of the characters is going to tell him something that will really damage him; the woman to my left must have felt so protective towards Mugsy that she actually said out loud “oh no, please don’t”. You know a drama is working when the audience can’t keep their reactions to themselves. Throughout the whole play, Mr Crankson’s vocal ticks and physical demeanour combine to paint a very vivid picture of this underdog, and it’s a wonderful, memorable performance; and it helps that Mr Marber gives him all the best comic lines.
We’d seen Oliver Coopersmith before in the Sheffield Crucible’s excellent production of The History Boys where he was brilliant as the difficult loner Posner; and once again he’s superb in this production as Carl, the nervy, obsessive gambler who blames everything and everyone else for his own inadequacies. He really does do ungratefully awkward very well. Richard Hawley absolutely captures Stephen’s almost-but-not-quite authoritative nature, compromised by his own personal and financial involvement with his staff as a result of the poker games, a hard man to some extent, but irrationally foolish when pushed. Ian Burfield makes for a very unsettling Ash, civil only to a point, professionally cool until his own financial dire straits turn him into a professional menace. I really enjoyed the performance of Carl Prekopp as Sweeney, deftly doing the food prep for the evening shift at the restaurant whilst agonising over his decision to miss the poker game so that he will have some money left to take his daughter out the next day; and Tom Canton is an excellent Frankie, with just the right blend of vanity and jack-the-laddishness to make you almost believe his own fantasy of cleaning up at the poker tables in Vegas.
A riveting production with some stellar performances, and another excellent addition to the “Made in Northampton” file. It has one more week at the Royal, and then will be playing at the Oxford Playhouse until 21st June. Definitely worth seeing.
P. S. I booked this show at the beginning of the year before its title had even been announced. In poker terms, that’s like staking £30 on the first deal in a five card stud. Such is my faith in the Royal and Derngate! And, as usual, they didn’t let me down!