Investment banker Kalm punches the air as his sister fails to return his sliding drop shot.
During long ping-pong rallies at London table tennis venue/bar Bounce, Kalm’s thoughts of spreadsheets, money, profits and losses fade away. All he focuses on is the small plastic ball clacking against the table.
Sadly, he has only an hour or two before he must return to the office. Once inside he’ll return to the monotony of conference calls, numbers flickering downward on screens in front of his aching eyes, an Uber Eats at his desk, an Uber home at 1AM, then trudging back to the office for 8AM. As he tells me, catching his breath, that hour of ping-pong offers him a moment's rest during otherwise stressful days.
Venues like Bounce aren’t the only places where you’ll have started to see adults reconnecting with their inner child, while also downing a few vodka and sodas. Picking up where the 2016-ish adult colouring book trend left off, the Natural History Museum now lets you in after-hours to watch scary movies and spend the night. You can curl up in front of a Disney classic at central London’s Prince Charles Cinema, play Hungry Hippo, Buckeroo, Connect 4 and other childhood board games at east and central London speciality bar Draughts.
In north London, punters compete to build the most convincing Lego robots at Drink, Shop & Do. The adventurous can take on "ultimate party playground" The Monster, London’s giant inflatable bouncy castle assault castle, find their inner Tarzan on a tree-top assault course, or scream their way down a zip line (craft beer is available at selected outlets).
These "kidult" events, which let adults rediscover the joy of play, are swelling in popularity – look to the bars in your local town and you’ve no doubt seen them offering whimsical activities like "prosecco pong", brunch but set to UKG, or glammed-up darts. So what about these child-like experiences appeals to people who understand what a pension is and spend half of the day in suits and skirts? And what would I learn about infantilising fun, after heading out to play crazy golf, ping-pong and then submerging myself in a boozy ball pit?
Unfortunately, Swingers in Shoreditch is more sanitised than its name suggests. For a crazy golf venue, there isn’t much crazy about it. On the undulating green course, men in pale blue suits putt into holes and in doing so feel relaxed enough to remove their ties. Most are here with work for team-bonding trips – presumably laughing over hand/eye coordination works as well as falling back into everyone’s outstretched arms or naming a funny fact about yourself.
I speak to Oscar, a 25-year-old bar manager who thinks we engage in these playful activities because our generation is unable to grow up. We remain paralysed in a no man’s land. We’re no more able to hammer a nail into a wall, lest we lose our damage deposits, than we are to get a job we actually like that doesn’t involve "flexi"hours’ (code for unpaid overtime).
As Oscar puts it succinctly: “I’m never going to own a house, a car, a pension, so the way I see it, I’m in my twenties until I am 50 and then I will die.” He’s not wrong, really. A Conservative think-tank suggested last week we raise the retirement age to 75 by 2035, if any of us will receive any pensions then at all.
After seemingly interrupting one too many Hilton Hotel managers' putts, I head to Bounce, where I'd met investment banker Kalm. Inside I chat to a group of teachers enjoying the feeling of being kids rather than looking after them for once, before sitting down with Sam (referred to affectionately by friends as “the depressed one”).
Sam is a 36-year-old air ambulance paramedic. He prefers ping-pong to the pub, because otherwise he and his friends just end up talking about work for hours. "We cover the most acute patients: the big traumas, the big sicks. Patients who have fallen off buildings, horses, fractured arms. Car crashes, femurs gone, just awake breathing, cardiac arrests. The patient’s heart stops and we restart them. It’s not drunk people at 3AM. Due to their injuries, they die more often than they live and that’s very hard to take."
Laughing at his friends’ clumsy backhand, Sam looked relaxed, a feeling that becomes a rarity with such a high-pressure job.
Elsewhere in the bar, 18-year-olds Amira, Tyrone and David soak up their last moments of joy before the concept of "fun" becomes a long Aldi shop. "We want to make memories together before we all head off to university in different cities," says Amira. "It gets boring when all the same movies are on at the cinema; you want to do something different. Not many people can say they went to a ping-pong bar."
Everything inside ball pit bar Ballie Ballerson is sugary-sweet. The walls look like a Basquiat x Pretty Little Thing collab. A hen do of Geordies with honey blonde highlights scream as a cake made entirely out of jelly candy heads towards them. The cocktails are concocted with melted marshmallows, Skittles, milkshakes, and called things like “You’re A Wizard Harry” and “The Salt Bae”. I start with the Dibbie Dabberson, a Dip Dab-flavoured cocktail so saccharine it returned the headachy fuzz of holidays when Mum let you have two Coca-Colas in a row.
In the ball pit, I wade over to Luna and Justine, friends holidaying here from Texas. Luna is a waitress and Justine is off to college. The two 18-year-olds are enjoying the relaxing nature of the pit after being "in museums all week, looking at portraits of grey-haired men". They’re cultured out, spent, and want to lie back in this jacuzzi of pink plastic without having to think about their life prospects. They want to be dumb and dumber until they’re too drunk and have to go back to the hotel.
The pit has a certain feeling of collective abandon. When you’re balls deep, thighs brush against thighs, you try to waddle out but collapse down again, people throw balls at you. It’s like being back in the sandpit with a bunch of toddlers, except these ones are bigger and they love filming Boomerangs on their phones. "In the street in London everyone is normally quite cold," says Justine. "But here, people are play fighting – they throw stuff at you or laugh with you; I feel more included."
I briefly exit the pool and order the WTAF cocktail which the bartender pointedly explains is an acronym for “what"the actual fuc"”. At first sip the red vodka mix it is sour, but chewing an attached pill in a small plastic baggy (subtle), the drink becomes much sweeter. You think, of course, 'WTAF.'
Back in the pit, 25-year-old John Lewis section manager Ollee talks into his iPhone, in a mock news report: “I’m reporting live from Ballie Ballerson where hundreds are drowning under the waves of balls”. He says he’ll upload the video to his Insta story at 9AM tomorrow, at peak like-time. But he also tells me, "When you’re working a 9 to 5, it’s nice to find your inner kid, to do something that’s ridiculous for a 25-year-old.
Lying in the ball pool, snow angel-ing on a sea of balls feels like being back in the soupy primordial pool of the womb. Lacking the securities of our parent’s generation, we can hide from responsibility by rediscovering play.
Kidulting events offer a brief respite in a life of overwork and underpay – it's a cliche, but it's true. Scream-laughing in the ball pit I can pretend I never had boyfriends who dumped me, jobs that fired me, landlords who charged me. I could be back in the red glow of preternatural life, anxiety-free, untethered from the administrative banalities of existence. Perhaps I shall take a selfie to prove it.