Not a Game for Boys

The action is moved from London to Belfast - but does the humour translate in this tale of three taxi drivers?

A piece of theatre with only three characters and the barest bones of a set – three chairs, a table, a handful of props – places great demands on the actors, and the writing itself needs to be scintillating. It is difficult to sustain the interest and the momentum.

So, fair play to C21 for giving Not a Game for Boys, written by Simon Block and first performed at the Royal Court Theatre in 1995, such a robust, valiant and well-intentioned try at the Crescent Arts Centre.

Local actors James Doran, Stephen Kelly and John Travers bring a vigour and an energy to this story of three taxi drivers – Eric, Oscar and Tony - who each find themselves adrift in life.

The play makes the transition from London-focused characters and action to a Belfast setting quite successfully: perhaps because taxi men, wherever they are from, share similar characteristics, at least in the public imagination. We imagine that they are like this: loquacious, phlegmatic, down-to-earth, and not afraid of using colourful language.

But it doesn't feel like 'Norn Iron' humour has been forcibly imposed on the original writing. Thank God, there are no self-conscious jokes about Tayto crisps – the usual quintessential Northern Ireland reference of choice.

In fact, local landmarks seem to fit in quite well with the ribald dialogue, as in Eric's remark to Tony: 'I think if you're going to buck someone up the Giant's Ring, you may as well do it properly.' I can't imagine the London equivalent of the Giant's Ring would have quite the same potential for implied profanities.

So far, so (moderately) funny. But as the play progresses, I start to wonder what it's actually saying about men and women – and about taxi-drivers, for that matter. The fact that the action is set in a table tennis league – Eric, Oscar and Tony are members of a team struggling to avoid relegation – confers a certain pathos on the men which is almost derisory.

In a life full of demands made by work or children or mothers or girlfriends (or, in Oscar's case, a stoically lonely life empty of any distractions, 'a man with nothing'), the 45 minutes these men spend playing table tennis each week becomes disproportionately significant. It's as though the pingpong is a metaphor for these pointless, directionless, self-absorbed male lives.

Women don't come out of this play very well either, at least by implication. There's Eric's needy, querulous wife, who continually phones him to complain and cry about Eric's mad mother, who is apparently both emotionally and literally incontinent: given to outbursts of laughter and tears, as well as sudden unfortunate 'evacuations' on the carpet.

There's the anonymous woman, apparently keen on meaningless casual sex, who receives Tony's adulterous attentions at the Giant's Ring. And there's also the suggestion that Lisa, Tony's official girlfriend, may be physically abusing him.

So, despite the humour and the swearing and the juicy double entendres, it seems that Not A Game for Boys is saying something much darker, something more serious - cynical even - about the relationship between the sexes. Oscar, the pingpong philosopher, gets a big laugh for his line, 'without self-knowledge, you're fucked'. But maybe he isn't joking.