Trafalgar Studio 1, London SW1
Opened 11 December, 2007

It is rare to encounter a programme essay as illuminating as the one added to this revival of Patrick Marber's 1995 play on its transfer into the West End. Writer and sometime poker player Anthony Holden's article tells us nothing essential to our enjoyment of Samuel West's production, but much that enriches the viewing experience. It throws light on the history of the piece, and its relationship to the culture of poker-playing and the world at large both then and now.

It is particularly interesting to learn that Ross Boatman, who plays the chef Sweeney in Marber's fictional restaurant, is a professional player as well as an actor; he seems so fond of gesture in the first act that it is hard to believe he could suppress a "tell" at the poker table, yet in the regular game amongst the restaurant staff in Act Two he is much more physically disciplined even whilst portraying Sweeney's psychological disintegration. Holden suggests that Marber views the play principally as about father-son relationships, but it encompasses all types of male bond, from actual family to various flavours of surrogacy to the profound homosociality which leads Sweeney to fret when told of best friend and flatmate Frankie's planned departure to turn pro, "But what about me?" It is not so much that poker is a metaphor for life, more that the game becomes a crucible in which all such feelings and dynamics are heated until incandescent.

The staging loses some of its physical intimacy in the vertiginous space of Trafalgar 1, but retains the atmosphere. (Likewise Tom Piper's design, which after years of portentous walls for the RSC showed a return to his classic "converta-set" ingenuity, is less striking here but still appreciably versatile.) The cast remain impressive: Roger Lloyd Pack as the literally poker-faced pro, Samuel Barnett as the feckless gambling-addict son, Jay Simpson as Frankie the big fish in a small pool, Stephen Wight carrying off the comic laurels as the too-dumb-to-know-he's-a-loser Mugsy, and especially Malcolm Sinclair's beautifully judged performance as restaurateur and father Stephen. But above all, it works as an ensemble piece, and suggests that as time passes Marber's biggest success to date, Closer, may come to be eclipsed by its predecessor work.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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