The Old Red Lion pub, bunted to bursting point with St George flags (falling off the wall, but not yet removed) is as traditional as it’s possible to get amid the bijou delis and bars of Angel. Upstairs is the Theatre, decorated almost identically to the pub downstairs – there is a bar, a dartboard, walls stained nicotine yellow that might have been a different colour once. But the upstairs is just a set for Mugs Arrows – a play both performed and set in a pub.
Its slow start, two men in funny hats playing darts, reveals little. There are tiny snatches of conversation between rounds. It seems as if they’re talking about a friend’s funeral – “did you cry”, “the flowers were beautiful”, “I first met Simon…” But then a bride appears. This is Simon’s new wife. He’s not dead – only married. He runs the pub and is upstairs, sleeping off the excitement and alcohol of his wedding.
Pat (Rhys King) and Ed (Eddie Elks, who has also written it) show open disdain for Sarah (Chiara Wilde) at first. Ed has some kind of breathing condition that cripples him every so often. Pat needs a wee every five minutes. So there are lots of moments of one of them left alone with Sarah. She wins Ed round, convincing him that the pub should be spruced up, that they should serve tapas and paint it blue. Pat remains steadfastly hateful towards Sarah.
There’s a constant, unsettling undertone amid the wry conversation. Pat talks about stamping on the skull of a half dead cat, like in the Lieutenant of Inishmore, and Sarah talks about pulling the beak off a chicken, and Ed talks about being convicted for sex with a minor. A weirdly vicious attitude to animals emerges as a theme – particularly the goats kept outside that headbutt themselves unconscious. But these moments are always quickly subdued by carefully paced, lower key exchanges between the three characters, full of pauses while they continue to play darts.
Brilliant directorial touches from Ken McClymont give the upstairs room a mesmerising, edgy feel – Sarah, blindfolded, spins around toward to the audience slowly taking aim with her dart. We flinch. Light and darkness are used to great effect – making props appear from nowhere and flickering to give an eery horror film feel.
After a while, after the relationships are established and I’ve got used to the switches between humour and horror, it all starts to get weird. And not just a bit weird, but very weird. “Show me your tongue” Pat shouts at Sarah while Ed is in the loo. She shows it to the audience – it is blue. Is she some kind of alien? Pat reduces her to tears with a Shatner-esque spoken karaoke version of Vanessa Williams’ Save The Best For Last. An argument and a vicious headbutt from Ed knocks Pat out, they lay him on the bar. Ed rapes Sarah, she stabs him in the back with the darts she’s clutching. His fingers come away blue. Richard Hawley’s There’s A Storm Comin plays. A man in underpants and a goat mask appears. He and Sarah dance and throw confetti.
The approximation of marriage with death at the beginning of the play is twisted slightly. Marriage hasn’t killed Simon, it’s only turned him into a dumb animal – a goat. And the playwright, Elks, tells us that goats are stupid enough to knock themselves out. Goats are also the animals that inspired tragedy as a genre: τραγῳδία is thought to mean goat song. And yet, while Simon is the actual goat (wearing a goat mask), it is Pat and Ed who have knocked each other out from headbutting.
From a dark comedy, the play starts to become a sci-fiesque short story about alien invasion (maybe?) and finally a bizarre, symbolic look at marriage, the invasion of femininity into a clique of male friends. I think, but I’m not 100% sure, that this is brilliant. I think it is deceptively deep, but much of the symbolism goes over my head. But I know that McClymont and crew make excellent use of the small space, and the cast give funny, frightening, intense performances. What sticks out a mile, though, is Elks’ writing. It is bold, bizarre and beautiful with a proclivity for oddity and symbolism that makes Mugs Arrows really weird but also totally unique.