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FringeReview UK 2016

Dealer’s Choice

Talking Scarlet

Genre: Drama

Venue: 88 London Road


Low Down

Revival of Patrick Marber’s first play premiered at the National Theatre in February 1995. Directed by Patric Kearns



Talking Scarlet produces murder mysteries in alternation with modern literary classics, suggesting a leanness to the latter that Marber’s text perfectly lends. Their production at 88 London Road continues the ramp-up pace set up with innovatory zeal there.

Much falls into place seeing this first play of Patrick Marber’s premiered at the National in February 1995. Not least how Marber’s structural feints work so well in Closer. A stand-up, Marber overcame the gambling obsession he writes of with authority here. He might add, given the lead’s comments, he’s really in remission.

It isn’t the world of Victoria Coren, but Dostoevsky’s The Gamblers or Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades made famous by Tchaikovsky’s opera: everyone wants to lose eventually, desire for oblivion runs.

A so-so café’s depicted in split kitchen and diner later morphed into a gambling cellar. Immature hyper-manic Mugsy jabs cook Sweeney to join the game owner Stephen runs weekly. Sweeney, knowing his own weakness, resists.

Across this vectored collision, Mugsy persuades smart Frankie to join him in turning a large urinal off the Mile End Road into a restaurant. Cue jokes around cubicles and eating. Mugsy needs an advance. Stephen, benign in cracked leather shoes (the place is slightly cracked), gently resists. Much of his time’s spent managing others’ dreams as damage-limitation. Such shrewd protectiveness nevertheless brings its own whirligig of pitfalls.

Stephen’s semi-estranged son Carl however brings enigmatic Ash. Ash who in lieu of Amoretti biscuits contemptuously asks Mugsy to serve him half his Twix served on a plate, cut.

It’s the first cut Ash makes: he’s taught Carl the game; Carl owes him £4,000. Ash owes. Ash has three hours to pay up, or the guns come. Carl persuades his father who’s just cancelled one debt to let Ash his ‘old school-teacher’ play. But does professional Ash know with whom he’s dealing?

The second act’s set up for surprise losses. Mugsy, hapless earlier, is in his illusory element as Carl deals. Mugsy’s excitement is literally addictive: only poker-faced Ash resists his pronouncing Diamonds ‘Deemonds’ – the key word of the play. Two or Ten of Demons drive each player now or later, beyond the brink.

If any lose, Stephen is prepared to work out a salvation. But as the finale draws a double climax it tides back a wrack of questions: the grip of addiction, love lost in fatherhood.

This actor six-pack exude delight in ensemble. Matthew Zilch as Mugsy is phenomenally well-cast, wreaking oblivious energies and irritating the hell out of audience as much as he’s portrayed as worthy of Stephen’s compassion – not just pity. The moment he jumps up arms windmilled shouting ‘I am the resurrection’ you realize few could summon that arc of energy.

David Keyes, dealt the difficult act of absorption, enacts someone self-consumed by gambling’s wasting disease: he hoods his brooding up to a flash of violence that’s all the more chilling. Griffin Stevens too in the callow Carl has to assert a waste of talent in the one role that must play matt. Samuel Clemens, on-the-make Frankie carries off balancing cocky intelligence with the slightest tremor of nerve.

Ben Crow’s reluctant Sweeney elicits huge sympathy as one who’s cannily renounced the habit only to be drawn back in. The way Frankie and Sweeney ineract is a gem of resignation in friendship and clarity of transaction.

The central role Stephen is however standout. Patric Kearns exudes paterfamilias, as well he might in a sense since he’s the director standing in. In short, however fine the original cast member, one wouldn’t wish anyone but the ex-hippie guise of Kearns, whose reined-in authority evinces a gamut of paternal gambits: dismissive, pleading, resigned, shrewdly deceptive and plain lying. He holds the metaphoric if not literal cards of each in his charge. In the climactic scene with Keyes the two confront each other with deadly respect. Utterly compelling.

Lighting in the first act, evoking the increasingly fevered switch of players in a proleptic light-show, essays small technical limitations in this space. Direction’s taut and could hardly be clearer though Kearns who also designs the show, allows each actor their shining.

The company ends its tour in Croydon from 26-30 April at the Ashcroft, if you’ve missed it here. Local technical issues aside, this superb production is worth a diversion for. Highly recommended.







Show Website

Talking Scarlet