Not A Game For Boys
King’s Head Theatre
12 June 2015
Sporting films and plays are de rigeur these days but very few have explored the seemingly sleepy world of table tennis. The King’s Head in Islington, one of London’s oldest pub theatres, has changed all that, with the help of former Eastenders actor and comedian Bobby Davro.
He’s appearing in a revival of Simon Block’s Not a Game for Boys, a play that helped launch Block’s career in the mid-90s. It’s the story of three taxi drivers who seek respite from their troubled lives in a local table-tennis league, and are facing the match of their lives and the possibility of relegation. However, rivalries and splits soon divide the group and the real game moves away from the table, as the team struggles to deal with their personal demons.
Team captain Eric (Davro) has a troubled marriage and home life, Oscar (Alan Drake) is full of loneliness and married Tony (Oliver Joel) has been taking a young lady ‘up the Aldwych’, to the disgust of his wife. These woes are brought sharply into focus by the off-stage death of ‘Fat Derek’, a universally loathed loudmouth who recently died whilst at the table. Oscar is left wondering whether there’s more to life than a weekly knockabout and begins to question his commitment to the cause.
These subplots are brought to life with a witty and lively (if extremely sweary) script, which perfectly captures the sharp and brutal verbal jousting often found in men’s sports clubs. There’s a Pinteresque quality to the dialogue and intimate staging; much of the play took place with one player out playing their ‘game’, providing a series of duologues that vividly showed the tensions playing out. The grass really was greener for the table tennis trio as they looked jealously at each other’s lifestyles; for example Oscar’s bachelor lifestyle (or loneliness) at odds with Eric’s unhappy marriage (or domestic bliss). The play’s underlying themes of loyalty, commitment and friendship are all explored and tested in a considered and well-balanced way.
Davro is brilliant as the sexist, bitter captain from hell Eric. This is a man who treats every game as if it’s the World Cup final and bristles with pride at the quality of biscuits he provides for his teammates. Davro really captures the tragedy of the character and his quest for escapism, especially in the scene where Eric admits that his 45 minutes a week at the table is the only time in life that he feels truly happy. The funnyman has clearly not lost his comic timing but the depth and emotion of his performance here may well surprise some of his fans and critics alike.
The other two cast members were equally solid, putting in strong performances. Alan Drake was excellent as the rational and conscientious Oscar, whose bachelor image hides a deeper malaise and unhappiness. A long and emotional monologue about the nature of loneliness was delivered beautifully, catching many members of the audience off guard. Tony, the youngest of the group, is also played with boyish enthusiasm by the excellent Oliver Joel. The characters are all engaging and well crafted; a nice line where their playing styles were described as ‘blocker’, ‘pusher’ and ‘hitter’ highlighted the contrasting personalities which Block has created for us.
This is the first play I have ever encountered which offers a copy of the script along with the usual programme. This was a very welcome innovation, although it did reveal in the staging notes that the character of Oscar was meant to be in his early fifties. Unless Alan Drake has an excellent beauty regime and is older than he looks, this sense of agedness never really came across, either in look or portrayal. The script was also useful for checking whether Davro’s only slip up of the night (a very literal one) was part of the script – it wasn’t!
Director Jason Lawson’s staging was excellent and the cast put everything into their performances with some extremely energetic blocking and movement. This was especially impressive considering the temperature of the venue resembled a small sauna. Whilst clearly not the fault of the cast or crew, it was very uncomfortable and the audience were noticeably suffering towards the end. Fiona Martin’s set was minimalist but effective, reinforcing the dinginess and gloominess that often goes hand in hand with amateur sport venues.
When I told friends that I was going to spend my Friday night watching Bobby Davro play table tennis, they could have been forgiven for thinking I’d been on the whiskey again. However, Not A Game for Boys was a fantastic night out, with some stellar performances and a brilliant script – certainly worth making a racket about!