Review – Dealer’s Choice, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th June 2014

Dealer's ChoicePoker. 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”;Frankie 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.

AshPatrick 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.

The Poker gamePatrick 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.

Kitchen and restaurantHe 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.

Stephen and AshIt’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.

StephenCary 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.

CarlWe’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.

The whole castA 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!

Review – The History Boys, Sheffield Crucible, 8th June 2013

The History BoysHere’s another play that most people know something about but which Mrs Chrisparkle and I had never seen; and the film passed us by as well. The National Theatre’s original production in 2004 had tremendous reviews and a rather brilliant cast, by the sound of it; but I’m delighted to say that the recent revival by Michael Longhurst at the Sheffield Crucible, the last night of which we saw on Saturday, also has a brilliant cast and was a very enjoyable, although not quite flawless, production.

Matthew KellyA simple set greets you on entering the auditorium – the floor of a school gym, that slightly uncared for parquet flooring that I remember all too clearly, and with sketchy well-worn sports court tramlines painted on top. That gym floor has the power to bring back all one’s own school memories in an instant. Scary! The school staffroom, and the movable glass encased pod that becomes the Headmaster’s Office, get wheeled on and off the stage along with school desks and chairs in a sometimes frenzied manner by the boys en masse, acting as scene setters whilst apparently doing sports training or performing one of the musical numbers that the eccentric teacher Hector has taught them. These scene changes work incredibly well; they help the show proceed with great pace and it maintains the humour even whilst we are waiting for the next bit to continue.

Edwin ThomasWhilst it is all very inventive and clever though, the staging is a problem from time to time. Sometimes the shape of the Crucible stage can really work against the audience. Much as when we saw Macbeth last year, depending on where you sit, some important scenes can get masked, and important character reactions can become invisible. From my seat (B16), whoever was sitting opposite the headmaster in his office was completely obstructed by the glass edged corner frame. Admittedly, the door was left open, and the reflection of the person could be seen in the door, but I didn’t feel that made up for the poor sight. The setting of the classroom scenes were rotated so that everyone got a different view in each scene, which sounds fair; but whenever a teacher had their back to you, it was a) hard to hear what they said, and b) impossible to see or hear the actor who was facing the teacher. I heard other people grumbling about that on the way out of the auditorium. That always makes me very frustrated – when you’re centre of Row B, you really ought to have a great view!

Nicholas DayWhilst I’m on the subject of frustration, I was also very disappointed to discover that they had run out of programmes for the final performance. To someone like me, who has kept all their programmes (and ticket stubs) going back to 1968, who likes to read the programme from cover to cover, including the bios of the cast and creative team, and who refers back to them on and off throughout the years to see the photos of the cast, and of the rehearsals (they’re often in programmes nowadays), I found the lack of a programme a slight mental barrier to bonding with the production. It also means I can’t illustrate this blog with photos from the programme – instead I have borrowed some photos from the Internet. I hope you don’t mind.

Julia St JohnI was, however, very impressed with the play itself. Funny, sad, taking very believable characters and making them just slightly larger than life; dealing with big questions about the nature of education and trust, and that sometimes perilous interaction between virtually adult pupils and teachers. It’s full of accurate, instantly recognisable characterisation: everyone knows a teacher like Hector, who believes in education for life rather than exams; everyone knew a boy like Dakin, more sexually precocious than is good for him; everyone knows an administrator like Headmaster Felix, keener on statistics than real life and only happy when he can label and categorise people and events.

Oliver CoopersmithMatthew Kelly gives a very entertaining performance as Hector, profoundly useless at preparing the boys for Oxbridge but creating a bond with them in an appreciation of everything that nourishes the heart, mind and spirit. Hector and the boys are a team; he’s the leader but he also allows himself to be dominated by the team dynamic if he sees fit. Hector comes across as both the stereotypical “tweedy jacket with elbow patch” teacher, and the surprisingly leather clad rebel on his motor bike, looking for a likely lad pillion rider for thrills and a grope on the way home. It’s a fascinating character because he’s human, he’s far from being 100% good; and you ask yourself the question, how much bad behaviour are you prepared to tolerate from one person for the greater good? The play’s answer is, quite a lot. If you’re familiar with your 1970s British drama, I’d say Hector makes a very interesting comparison with David Mercer’s unorthodox and unpredictable vicar, Ossian Flint. Anyway, Matthew Kelly gives a great performance of schoolmasterly bluster, kindly counsellor, personal rage and emotional outpourings.

Tom Rhys HarriesIt’s an excellent contrast with the cool and reserved performance of Edwin Thomas as Irwin, the graduate new recruit brought in to sharpen the boys’ brains for the rigours of applying for Oxford and Cambridge. As Irwin attempts to break into the Hector/Boys club, it becomes a very interesting study of what happens when an outsider interrupts a cosy set up. Loyalties are tested, judgements called into question. The play’s two acts both begin at a later moment in time, when Irwin, now a presenter of History TV programmes, is filming an episode which will be interrupted by one of the boys. Irwin’s perhaps unsurprising bitterness is clearly revealed in a very effective use of dramatic irony, and I thought Mr Thomas’ performance here became disquietingly sinister. Brilliantly done.

Joshua MilesI very much enjoyed Nicholas Day’s performance as the Headmaster, clearly intellectually outsmarted by his colleagues but secure in his power of status and seniority. Alan Bennett gives the character some of the best lines in the play and he makes the great use of them. Julia St John as Mrs Lintott, the third teacher, also gives an excellent performance, treading a sensible path between the extremes of the others and amusingly giving voice to Bennett’s subversion of the rules by virtually coming out of character to revel in the fact that she’s the only woman in the play. Great use of shock language! I was reminded of the character of Maria Feletti in “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” turning on the writer, Dario Fo, for his sexism in making her the only woman in his play. I also loved the scene where the three teachers coach each of the pupils on how to be interviewed for Oxbridge. It’s a hoot, and really heightens the differences between the characters.

Will FeatherstoneThere are superb individual performances too from the actors playing the boys. Both Mrs C and I agreed that Oliver Coopersmith as Posner was outstanding. In Posner’s own words, being small, Jewish, homosexual and from Sheffield notwithstanding, he gives a superbly subtle performance of being discriminated against and vulnerable but also incredibly defiant and unsentimental. His singing was immaculate, and his comic timing fantastic. I also really liked Tom Rhys Harries – who gave great support in the Menier’s Torch Song Trilogy last year – as Dakin, the good-looking popular boy on a mission to spread the boundaries of sex as much as he can dare; a really confident and insightful performance. Joshua Miles, brilliant in Bully Boy, here plays the outspoken Lockwood, again excellent, although I was a little disappointed that we didn’t see more of him as it isn’t really a major part. Will Featherstone’s Scripps was another no-nonsense portrayal of a character who knows he’s going to have to make lots of sacrifices in his life, a surprisingly moving and very believable performance. The rest of the cast give solid gold support and in particular the eight actors who play the boys put in an amazing overall ensemble performance – you can see that they’ve got a fantastic working relationship and it gives tremendous drive to the whole production. Thought provoking, funny, and very satisfying – this was an excellent revival and I’m glad we got the chance to see it.