I’m pretty sure that actor Ian Burfield is kind to animals and loves his mum but he’s seriously scary as an indebted gambler in Patrick Marber’s poker play Dealer’s Choice.
The drama, playing at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, until June 14, takes place in a London restaurant where owner Stephen hosts a weekly poker session for his staff.
Among the players is his son, Carl, whose gambling habit has got him into a £4,000 debt to professional poker player Ash (Burfield).
In turn, Ash also owes big time. He goes to the restaurant to put the strong-arm on Carl – only to be persuaded that he can win the cash back by joining in the “friendly” poker session.
The players all have aspirations that they think can be solved by a big win. But Stephen, an old school player, tells Carl: “Poker is all about discipline.”
It’s game on in the second act and the ante is high for everyone.
Waiter Frankie (Tom Canton) wants to quit and become a Las Vegas professional while chef Sweeney (Carl Prekopp looking very at home chopping and dicing) needs enough cash to take his daughter out.
But it’s waiter and eternal underdog Mugsy who captures everyone’s hearts. There’s an ace of a performance by Cary Crankson who deals a winning hand as the proverbial loser.
Burfield, as Ash, is a glowering, menacing bruiser (I blame the goatee) who intimidates from the off. He’s not the sort of man to owe money to.
I have to admit that I was completely lost with all the poker terminology but you can, mostly, gloss over it.
Michael Longhurst’s clever, almost cinematic, staging of the game itself, which takes up the second act, produces a cracking action-packed scene that’s tense and electrifying.
Who would be the night’s winners and losers?
The ever optimistic Mugsy dominates the opening as he bounces between the kitchen and restaurant.
He hopes to convert a public toilets in the Mile End Road into a top end eaterie. This is 1996 and the rest of the gang ridicule him – today it would be a highly fashionable location.
Realistically I wouldn’t have thought poorly paid kitchen and waiting staff could afford to lose £1,000 in a night much less have a generous restaurateur boss (Richard Hawley) playing Santa.
Oliver Coopersmith gives a good turn as the weak son Carl who wallows in self-pity and despises his father’s success.
But there’s no doubting the energy and excitement in Dealer’s Choice.
Anyone for a game of Snap?