Darts is one of those games – like shove ha’penny or tiddlywinks – which involve a huddling of cultish mutterings, completely impenetrable to the outsider. Eddie Elks’ deeply satisfying, intriguingly impenetrable text plays on darts’ baffling terminology, the titular mugs arrows included, to slip from the ordinary world of a pub to its surreal fugue state – there’s something nasty swirling under this dark-patterned carpet.
Pat and Ed are playing a game of darts, late at night. It’s clearly a ritual they’ve been performing for decades; Christopher Nairne’s opening light show suggests its magical, performative properties with golden spotlights that fall on glasses, a hat, and a whiskey bottle in turn. These are accessories to a comforting competition that starts in near silence – the game’s ideal state, we sense. But the personalities of the players gradually spurt up from its serene surface in the form of less orderly rivalries, unbidden and unplanned.
Ed (Elks) is the more natural winner of the pair’s constant bouts of one-upmanship, even if Pat (Rhys King) plays harder, nastier. King’s performance has an infuriating edge of natural superiority about it, and a social ease which lets him complement Ed’s suit, even as he doubts its designer credentials. Ed’s the better player, hitting a bullseye blindfold in a virtuoso display of sozzled bravado. But Pat is the kind of friend who’s earned, over decades, the right and power to rein in his friend’s ego like a wayward toddler – making bizarrely coded references to a sexual assault in his past.
Pat’s ex-wife and relationship with his withdrawn, ballet-dancing son falls on just the wrong side of Nick Hornby-style everyman comedy for comfort. In About A Boy, the child Marcus kills a duck with an unexpectedly hard sandwich. Here, it’s Pat who runs over a cat in his car then stamps on its head in front of his horrified son, watching from the backseat. He doesn’t speak for days afterwards. There’s more animal-related horror to come, in an uneasy sign-posting of the play’s final, total lurch into abstraction.
Upstairs, their friend Simon snores. It’s his wedding night, but his new wife Sarah has escaped downstairs to share it with his two old mates instead. Unpardonably feminine in a wedding dress, she’s barely tolerated. Forcing her way into the contest, she throws darts like an enraged toddler hurling cutlery; a destructive, dangerous influence on a delicate and polite ritual. But she’s also a physical representation of the anger and tensions behind this game of darts, which is laced with as many quiet resentments as any dysfunctional family meal.
The play’s sexual politics are unappealing, because they’re inextricable from its protagonists’ own deep-seated suspicion of women. The pub is a womb-like sanctum for Ed and Pat, and Sarah’s attempts to squeeze them out of it into a clinical world of blue walls and round metal tables are to be resisted with all their infantile might. Her desire to “do food” is especially horrifying. Ed goes along with the planned Tapas Tuesdays, but his gleeful talk of “patatas gravitas” is a deep act of betrayal to vulnerable Pat.
It isn’t quite clear, through most of the play’s length, if we’re witnessing a subjective or objective reality – although Chiara Wilde’s performance as Sarah is a brilliantly judged evocation of threatening female sexuality, by turns coy and bristling with surreal intensity. But its finale retreats entirely into Ed’s pysche to marry the carefully dropped hints to Sarah’s identity into a barnstorming, confetti-strewn last dance.
Ken McClymont’s direction could, perhaps, have fought harder to extend the play’s symbolic, ritualistic atmosphere against the deadening, normalising influence of the traditional pub. Still, even if the darker sides of Elks’ text are left lurking in its dustier corners, or behind its disco-ball-concealing bar, McClymont populates this boozer with some stunning performances, finding all the irregularities in these odd regulars.