In 1995, a rash of plays about men spread across London like an outbreak of male acne. Jez Butterworth's Mojo, DV8's Enter Achilles, Patrick Marber's Dealer's Choice all opened within six months of each other, as did Simon Block's ‘melan-comic' three-hander Not a Game for Boys, about a team of emotionally stunted table tennis players.
Twenty years on, the boys are well and truly back in town. At the end of a week that has seen faded footballers at the National and hand-me-down misogyny at the Royal Court, here's the first London revival of Block's ping-pong ding dong.
An amateur team made up of minicab drivers is facing relegation. This is a must-win game and Eric (Bobby Davro) is determined to survive. His teammates, however, are pre-occupied: Oscar (Alan Drake) with his own mortality, following the mid-match death of fourth member Fat Derek last week, and Tony (Oliver Joel) with the parlous state of his relationship.
The danger is that this teeters into sitcom territory: three grown men in thigh-high shorts obsessing over a weedy sport played at a low level. Not for nothing was Block approached about a Channel 4 series first time around. Truth be told, Jason Lawson's larky production falls into that trap. Even if it demonstrates the immaturity of these men, it stays largely on the surface and is, too often, just about table tennis itself.
Actually, it's the rest of their lives that are important. Eric snaps down the phone at his wife Elaine, currently caring for her senile, incontinent mother. Oscar, who carries an unloaded pistol for protection, is mid-mid-life-crisis: unmarried and underachieving. Tony's eaten up by guilt after a random back-seat shag. All of them are in repetitive, lonely and poorly paid jobs, ferrying others around London without leaving any mark of their own.
Davro's a surprisingly commanding actor, but while he convinces us quite how adamant Eric is about avoiding relegation, he never makes us understand why – what purpose the sport serves in his life, what it deflects from or substitutes for. Drake, his knee in a heavy-duty support, conveys Oscar's world-weariness without pushing the catatonia bubbling up within, and you never feel that Joel's dim, amiable Tony is about to lose a relationship that really matters to him. The nuanced differences in their relationships – father-son versus master-apprentice – are also missing.
Rather than playing the truth of these characters – really finding the pregnant pauses in Block's writing, those moments when these men let something of themselves slip – Lawson's cast play them for laughs: unfit old men pouring with sweat and gasping for breath. It's all about the back and forth, the patter that bounces between them – and, on those terms, Block's script has a wry sense of humour and a load of cracking one-liners – but the surface spin warps the pace of the matches being played offstage and makes the final fall-out between the trio seem bloated beyond all measure: more Tarantino spoof than masculinity in meltdown.