views from the gods

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Not a Game for Boys
The King's Head Theatre
12th June 2015

★★★☆☆

Oliver Joel, Bobby Davro and Alan Drake as Tony, Eric and Oscar

Photography provided by The King's Head Theatre

As much as I like to defy gender expectations, I really hate sport. I'd much rather be soaking in a bit of culture than huffing and puffing and playing with balls. Erm, I maybe phrased that a bit wrong... Anyway, whilst Simon Block's script Not a Game for Boys immediately triggers an instinctive "get me out of here" reaction purely due to the subject matter, it doesn't take long to realise it's not really about amateur table tennis and its inner workings. It only seems that way at times because for cab driver Eric (Bobby Davro), the league has become his entire his world. Forget his wife, forget his dignity, he has to play - it's his singular purpose. The league is a bit of a laugh for younger driver Tony (Oliver Joel) and it's an old joke that's worn thin for third cabbie and third team-mate Oscar (Alan Drake) who fears the game has made them all lose perspective. And he may be onto something there.

The action takes place in the bar area of a small tennis club. It's functional, a bit tatty round the edges and whilst we know there are women in the hall next door playing a match, there's something of a working men's club feel. It might be Fiona Martin's deliberately run down design or it could be the combined effect of the crass language, manual occupation and average age of the three men we see. Each takes it in turn to duck off-stage and face the other team in a doubles tournament which will determine who gets relegated. Left with a different pair on-stage each time, the piece feels like a two-hander. We learn about their personalities, the intimate details of their lives and the strange group dynamic that binds them.

Eric is a misogynistic geezer and the glue that holds the trio together, persuading the other two separately to carry on playing and to help the whole team win. Reflective Oscar has an opinion on everything despite his "policy" of "I never interfere" and Tony appears to have an opinion too, talking of his "deeper malaise", but his original thoughts are largely lifted from the self-help pages of women's magazines. The slightly odd, stilted dialogue from Oscar and Tony prompts laughs, but the more we learn about their lives, the more tragic we find their speech. The banter masks a lot.

Ring-leader Eric is equally if not more so pitiful. Listening into the conversations between Eric and his wife, we realise they're both playing the role of carer for his mum and are woefully unequipped to do so. The reversal of the parent-child relationship is tougher on Eric than he lets on, and his wife isn't faring much better. Table tennis was probably once a simple escape from the day-to-day difficulties of his situation, but his failure to provide his wife with the emotional support she needs makes us resent him. What with Eric dumping his elderly infirm mum on his wife, and Tony cheating on his long-term girlfriend and showing limited signs of remorse, it's not easy to like either man. Oscar becomes the most reasonable by default, but he too is unwilling and unable to sustain a grown up relationship.

Over the course of the play, Oscar becomes obsessed with the idea of dying in shorts. However it's more than worry about sartorial choices, the shorts become a symbol for their immaturity. The three men for different reasons are trapped by their own infantilised behaviour and this surprisingly makes for a quite substantial and interesting portrait. As tensions simmer, director Jason Lawson also brings out some emotional depth and we see the protagonists for who they really are - three lost boys. They may have all done The Knowledge, but there's so much they just don't know.

Summer is most definitely here and black box theatre the King's Head is starting to reach sauna-like conditions, but I suppose that only gives an element of immersiveness to the production. As each player staggers back into the locker room after a match, he looks knackered and we feel just as sweaty. Not a Game for Boys has some complex emotions at is core, buried under a sticky layer of swearing, macho pride and tennis bats. For most people, it's been a long time since Davro was on their radar, but this is a worthy comeback. We see plenty of the familiar cheeky chappie, but this is a more complex performance than perhaps you might expect.

Not a Game for Boys opened on 10th June and runs until 5th July 2015 at the King's Head Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)



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