Dealer’s Choice is the first offering from ex-Oxford Revue funnyman Cameron Cook and sees him both directing and acting – a risky exploit attempted by many and rarely with success. But it must be said that Cook does it remarkably well, containing his confidence within a desire to listen to his team and eat as many slices of humble pie as possible. Don’t take my word for it: Cook is “very pleased” with the cast he has chosen, as are they with him. “It’s been really good,” we’re told by one member at the media preview, “he knows what he’s doing.”
Indeed, only when one comes across the script does one realise the effort that has gone into taking it from the page to the stage. Cook describes Dealer’s Choice as a “black comedy” about six friends who play weekly poker games in London’s East End in the 1990s. The central character, Muggsy (Cook), is a resourceful scallywag who aspires to make his fortune by converting some “spacious” public toilets into a French restaurant – a plan that is as bleak as it is totally absurd. In Muggsy’s own words, it’s all about vision: something that manifests itself as much in Cook’s directing as it does his acting. Muggsy’s explanation of his plan sees his silk tie foregrounded on a table in full view of the audience, a symbol of his sense of direction and material aspiration, and a move that only serves to heighten the potent sense of bathos when we find out what he is actually planning… Indeed, these are not things explicitly demanded by the script; Cook has used Patrick Marber’s writing as a template for his own interpretation, a reminder that a great script is only ever a starting point.
The play should, Cook hopes, be “hilarious” – and, indeed, it is. Neatly avoiding any air of juvenile slapstickism, it sticks to a very defined and controlled exploration of some pretty bleak themes. The number of references to time, death and decay all contribute to an aesthetic that effortlessly emphasises the characters’ hopelessly neanderthalic life journey. Muggsy refers to the man who invented the wheel – “Mr. Fucking Wheel” – as a man who, just like him, needed a chance. And, at the other end, repeated images of graveyards, death and cemeteries help to frame the play’s existentialist outlook as one defined by acute pessimism and inevitable misery: “you’ll go to your grave not knowing”. It is, in many ways, reminiscent of Mike Lee’s Abigail’s Party, a play that uses leisure and excess as a model for a far deeper discussion of class, money and material aspiration. It is a consistent layer of meaning because it is thoroughly understood by director and cast. They have done their homework.
Beneath this bleak humour sits a layer of sexual tension that presents Cook with a fantastic opportunity to add further depth to the performance. Sexual references come creeping through the woodwork with subtle consistency, something which neatly destabilises the play’s masculine façade. “You nipple” is used as an insult accompanied by sarcastic references to Muggsy’s “pleasuredome”, and, more seriously, the historic spectre of the AIDS virus. If this is not topical enough, the structure governing Marber’s punchy dialogue seems representative not only of financial gambling, in which oneupmanship is a rhetorical device used by those on stage to defeat their opponents in short-spoken exchanges, but of a sort of sexual gambling, in which the characters’ weaknesses and sexual inclinations are, uncomfortably, thrust out into the open. More work is needed to really bring this element out and expose it for all it is worth theatrically, but no doubt that will come.
Audiences are, then, in for a treat. Cook has thankfully eschewed the cringeworthy pretense of the Tommy Wiseau school of actor-directors, and is, humbly, heading for the Eastwood camp. He has chosen a play that he understands and has clearly spent a great deal of time thinking about and analysing, and the result is a carefully-crafted performance that amply fulfils his own aims: to get us to laugh, but more importantly to get us to think. Dealer’s Choice will no doubt be the first of many reminders that Cook is, at least, playing a very, very good hand.
Dealer’s Choice is showing at the Burton Taylor Studio in 8th week, from Tuesday 11th – Saturday 15th June, 7.30pm. Tickets £6/£5
PHOTO/ Mica Schlosser