Review: Dealer’s Choice

Art & Lit Stage

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In an out-of-context quote from her bestselling series, Dannika Dark’s character Knox steamily goes: “I think we’re both bullshitting here, you ever play that card game?”

Well, Cameron Cook’s game is poker. And there’s no bullshit in the fact that he’s holding all aces. In fact, he is the ace. In his directorial debut of Patrick Marber’s acclaimed Dealer’s Choice, Cook leaves the audience bursting with laughter and heartache.

A former Oxonian himself, Patrick Marber may write comedies, but from Notes on a Scandal to Closer, there is an intense coldness that looms through his works, suppressing the humour and pulling it down like ice from beneath. Cook, who admitted to never having seen an actual performance of the play, takes Marber’s intense coldness and re-presents it, rather, as an intense darkness that oppresses, almost misogynistically, from on top. Interestingly though, this interpretation allows the humour to be ‘relieved’, with hits like kisses, so that tensions can actually climax into Freudian release. The original, which was directed by Samuel West, may be phenomenal, but the sweetly tangy blast Cook brings to his version makes it even better—and much more fun.

When asked what inspired to him to direct it in the style that he did, Cook replies: “Have you seen Sexy Beast?”

“I wanted the dialogue to have those elements,” he goes on to explain, pointing out the film’s straightforwardness, funniness, and fast-paced banter. And the end result seems to be exactly what he intended—a brilliantly pulpy rendition of Dealer’s Choice that, while remaining philosophically existentialist, will keep you utterly engaged.

Set in London in the 1990s, the three-act play revolves around the anticipation, preparation, and eventual operation of a weekly basement poker game. The drama follows restaurant owner Stephen and his employees Sweeney, Mugsy, and Franky. Though all the men have gambling problems to a certain degree, the most intense relationship is that between Stephen and his son Carl, a severe gambling addict. In hopes to pay him off, Carl brings thug-like Ash, the man he is indebted to, into the mix. But the drama is about much more than gambling problems. It’s about the aspirations, degradations, and frustrations of and between men. Poker may be the name, but it is life that is the game.

Although all castmates give hearty performances, it is Mugsy, portrayed by Cook himself, who steals the show. Cook’s acting skills are outstanding and his instinct, in terms of comedic timing, is more like a gift.  In terms of character depth, his relentless performance subconsciously amplifies the relentlessness of daydreamer Mugsy, who is nagged and belittled by his co-workers constantly, especially when he excitedly shares his business scheme to convert a public toilet into a French restaurant.

“That’s the difference between us. Vision,” Mugsy points out in the first act.

And that’s the difference between a failure of a student production and something like this: vision!

As for Cook, a double major in English Law and French Law with an aspiration to become an actor, with his academic intelligence, emotional intelligence, natural talent, as well as handsome looks, he’s sure to make a mark on the acting world if he persists. But he’s sure to find success as a director as well.

5 STARS

PHOTO / Mica Schlosser