“You’re worried about the shoes? Just think about the balls…”
There can’t be too many theatrical experiences that take place in a working bowling alley but over at Rowan’s Bowling Alley in Finsbury Park, that is exactly what you’ll find in No Barriers With Barriers. The real life No Barriers With Barriers bowling club was set up by Peter Faventi and Ray Downing to create the most inclusive environment possible for a bowling team (all ages allowed, and they play with the bumpers up, hence the name!) and their experiences led them to develop something that would combine their two loves of theatre and bowling.
And what a ‘something’ that is. Devised theatre can often feel like a collection of disparate pieces barely held together but here, the central thread of the 54th edition of the Rowans’ Championship Cup provides an engaging framework from start to finish, seeing three teams competing over a full game of 10 frames. And in amongst the bowling, we get to explore some of the stories of the players – their lives, their loves, their backgrounds, their aspirations and as if that wasn’t enough, at any moment we’re subject to a pop quiz on some aspect or other of bowling.
With our special bowling shirts on (given on arrival), a pulsing pop soundtrack and the wonderfully charismatic compering of Norm and Norm (Downing, and Barry Churchill), it is impossible not to be seduced by the fun of it all. Getting to meet fierce rival teams the Lightning Riders and the King Pins; seeing Sarah, Lisa and Roger (from Finance) stumble into the venue looking for their corporate team-building day; and then watching them all get thoroughly stuck in to knocking those pins down is a simple but highly effective starting point, it’s impossible not to root for people when they get a strike whilst not even looking at where they’re bowling!
But the piece gains real power in the second act, in the pauses between frames, as we delve into the personal. Stories of fraught birthday parties at Wimpy and Beckham mohawks gone wrong remind us how long and deep childhood traumas can linger, the sweetest of love stories rears its head (and brilliantly its not the fact that they’re both girls, or different races, but their opposing teams that is the biggest issue) and the way that cheating robs people of the genuine joy of participation is movingly evoked in a powerful speech by Faventi’s Striker.
These unexpected shards of genuine emotion that come shining through the fun are so heartfelt, and so uncomplicated in their emotion, that I found myself utterly invested in the entire thing and could have sat through another 10 frames. It almost hardly seems worth mentioning that the company is made up of emerging artists both with and without learning difficulties – I would have loved it regardless – but it is a crucial part of their ethos and as a representation of inclusive theatre, it can and should certainly hold its head up most high. Let them bowl you over too.