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Theatre Critic watching darts.

One for Theatre Critic watchers: Michael Billington watching darts.

The image is not appearing properly so click through here if you to see it…

And his review:

Driving down the M4 on a bank holiday Monday in pelting rain to watch a darts tournament in Cardiff, I wonder if I am being punished in some way, either by God or the Guardian. As a darts virgin, I imagine watching sweating, beer-bellied arrowmen playing to a few hundred spectators. What I discover is that Premier League darts is a mixture of showmanship, skill and big business played to more than 4,000 people, who pack every inch of the Cardiff International Arena. “Darts,” I am told by Sky Sports commentator Sid Waddell, “is working-class theatre.”

I get to talk to Waddell in his presentation box and soon realise why he is as much a legend as the players he describes. In the course of doing his vocal warm-ups, this genial Oxford-educated Geordie talks to me knowledgeably about the original Pitmen Painters (recently dramatised by Lee Hall in his play about the Ashington miners, now at the Cottesloe) and quotes Wittgenstein’s remark that trying to define sport is like trying to define language. But he has none of the pretentiousness of Keith Talent, the anti-hero of Martin Amis’s novel London Fields, which I have been reading by way of preparation. Talent talks of “the address of the board” and “the sincerity of the dart”. Waddell gives me shrewd tips about the players, the punters, the phenomenal popularity of darts and, on air, displays a manic fervour that produces off-the-cuff lines such as “he could play a ukelele and make it sound like a Stradivarius”.

The event itself – consisting of two play-off semis and a final – is a mixture of razzmatazz and expertise. The players, flanked by glamorous female acolytes, enter down a red carpet, like championship boxers. The crowd chant, shout, sing, roar on their favourites, hold up placards (“Kids, has the babysitter turned up yet?” reads one) but fall appreciatively silent for each “leg” of the contest. What soon becomes clear, however, is that we are here to watch the coronation of a darts genius: Phil “The Power” Taylor, who has won the three previous Premier League finals and is about to sweep to a triumphant fourth.

“Taylor is to darts,” I was told by Waddell, “what Bradman is to cricket or Pele to football: he has set a standard which we know will never be matched.” But in sport, as in theatre, there is always a hidden story just beneath the surface. In the second semi the 47-year-old Taylor defeats the 23-year-old Adrian Lewis with contemptuous ease: only later do I learn that both hail from Stoke and that Taylor is a professional mentor to the visibly crestfallen Lewis. And, although in the final Taylor beats the 25-year-old James Wade with a run of remarkable trebles, the steely, bespectacled Wade periodically unsettles the champ. Are we, I wonder, seeing the darts equivalent of drama’s peripateia: a crucial turning-point in which the reigning king has to acknowledge a rival to the throne?

But, for now, the rotund, unflappable Taylor displays the perfect hand-to-eye co-ordination and muscle memory of the great sportsman. His only mistake, in picking up the £100,000 prize, is to say that “it’s been a great year for English sport” momentarily forgetting that he is addressing a crowd of raucous, partisan, tanked-up Welshmen. Darts may be a display of sporting skill. But, as one of Waddell’s Sky colleagues said to me as I was about to quit the noisy arena: “You can take darts out of the pub, but you can never entirely take the pub out of darts.”

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One Response to “Theatre Critic watching darts.”

  1. Andrew Haydon on June 27th, 2008

    It betrays a real mistrust for darts that his preparatory reading was London Fields. After that nothing could fail to be a relief, surely? Mind you, I’d have probably had the same book lodged subconsciously at the back of my mind. Are there any kind accounts of darts in literature?

  • About me

    I'm a playwright and investment analyst. I have a broad range of interests: food, gardening, innovation & intellectual property, sustainability, architecture & design, writing and the arts. I sit on the board of Talawa Theatre Company and advise a CIS investment trust on socially responsible investments.

  • Recent Work

    Recent plays include, for theatre: Nakamitsu, Yellow Gentlemen, Lost in Peru, Lemon Love. For radio: Places in Between (R4), Patent Breaking Life Saving (WS).

  • Nakamitsu

  • Yellow Gentlemen