Just as India starts to get serious about lawn bowls, given a gold medal has fetched up rather suddenly, comes the wicked Commonwealth Games twist to the tale: A winking hoot of a street-drama-take on the sport that sees the English poke fun at their own outrageously indulged sport which squats in the CWG at the expense of other self-declared worthies.
That the self-effacing, sometimes slapstick and generally goofy street show ‘Come Bowl With Me’ was chosen by the Birmingham Games committee to be part of the cultural programmes running alongside the sporting tapestry at the Games takes ‘everyone’s in on the joke’ to another level.
Talking Birds, a drama company, was literally commissioned to gently troll their own sport at street corners to much merriment from the audience that stumbled past and stopped by to watch. In true lawn bowls style, ‘Come Bowl With Me’, that’s performed 15 shows on street corners in the last week at Leamington Spa and neighbouring Coventry – 10 miles away – sends “a ball that bends, towards a ball that doesn’t.”
Actor Jack Trow, who plays Roger Rinkwell in ‘Come Bowl With Me’ and goes through a variety of outrageous enactments of what happens in lawn bowls, was fairly stunned by the cheating lengths that senior club players can go to, to win, and that was quickly incorporated into the play. “Some cheating might have taken place, I mean goes with sport. But some of the regular oldies playing at the local club would put toppings on a colour ball to manipulate which way it could curve! That was unthinkable, that and there’s so many ways of cheating that they can think up,” he says, fake-devastated by the realisation that age didn’t necessarily bring wisdom and integrity to sport.
On the whole, ‘Come Bowl With Me’ takes on a PG Wodehouse tone to the whole show, as the characters here remain slightly inept at the sport, never realising it. “They are invariably pompous characters not as qualified to play the sport as they expect,” says Derek Nisbet, Co-Artistic Director, Talking Birds.
Sport is unfairly stereotyped as a young person’s stomping ground – E-sports is a Demo sport at CWG – but the Brummie organisers thought it would be a good chuckle to rib the generally older lawn bowl players about how seriously they take what is a distinctly unathletic endeavour. “We knew old people play this sport, and it’s a bit boring to watch, but it’s actually televised, and people watch!” Trow, the actor, says, faking outrage, adding how he enjoyed playing on the thin line lawn bowlers walk on the edge of rules.
“It’s wicked how brazen the cheating can get. Once a coach pretended to pull a hamstring and fell down to block the progress of a ball!” he says. Though some of those stories might be extending truth, within a highly anachronistic sport, there’s also the traditionalists wanting to keep the sport as status quo, and modernists looking to stir up a T20 version. All that effort, to accelerate rolling of balls along the grass, one’d think.
But lawn bowls can get pretty entertaining when intensely focussed seniors – all CWG athletes, mind you – start jogging behind the ball, literally yelling at it, to bend this way and that, and screw their faces into something resembling swollen braised tomatoes, if it disobeys.
The game lapses into ridiculous – raw material for all the play gags – because anyone can play at an average level in quick time, and fancy that high levels of excellence are within their grasp. But the evil sport can then turn elusive. “Then the obsession with fine margins (as players potter around the variously coloured and even intricately tattooed balls) gets quite mad,” co-writer Nisbet says. Watching players watch that ball stalkingly and take all of this quite seriously can be pretty funny and lead to quirky unique situations.
Taking the Mickey
Talking Birds ran a similar street play some years back on cricket – complete with song and dance where terrible cricketers set up pitches at wholly inappropriate street corners – “surrounded by glass shopfront walls” – and the audience were invited to join in and bowl with a hard ball. A security guard character was roped in to play the expert, and Messrs Duckworth & Lewis and the term ‘silly mid-off’ were used in completely shredding the game down. “It’s British to laugh at ourselves when we start taking ourselves too seriously,” Nisbet says.
Fashioned along the lines of the British show Come Dine With Me, or a Strictly Come Bowling, the street show combines elements of exaggeration with choreographed dress-up and bizarre costumes. But there’s some subliminal moments to go with the ridiculous. Like in para lawn bowls, a string guides the visually impaired to where the balls are. “And there’s some pretty fancy tech. Also at the elite level, athletes have intense warm-ups and techniques. At one level, it’s just children playing marbles. But you have to appreciate how seriously they take it,” Nisbet says.
The traditional rivalry remains the Ashes one, where Aussie lawn bowlers are envied for their professionalised set-ups. Styles of play – just how many different styles can there possibly be to roll a ball from Point A to Point B! – are apparently different, and only trained eyes can spot that.
Going offbeat, silly and playful with song and dance, on lawn bowls was something both the Games organisers and the theatre troupe were mighty kicked about. “But we took the responsibility to know about the sport and the ultra-competitive community we were making fun of. Took coaching from top club coaches, so we play with the game from a position of knowledge.”
It’s where they’d meet a renowned coach who was unabashed about maintaining the sport’s exceptionalism and exclusivity and keeping it posh. A deliciously ranting cantankerous old man, the gent had the choicest words for the sport looking to broaden its base. “When he was told the best thing about the sport is that many more people can get good at it, he was livid. ‘Why’s that a good thing! I don’t want them to get good at it, and win!’” Well, now they have Indian women who are mighty good at it and just won gold in the Women’s Fours. Take that and all that.