Wednesday, March 11, 2015

'Lardo' at the Old Red Lion Theatre, 7th March 2015

"Lardo: Contains smoking, swearing, flashing lights and extreme wrestling mayhem."

That promising sign proved to be an accurate summary of things to come. Upon entering the performance space above the Old Red Lion Pub you're greeted by a wrestling ring, all padded floor, taped turnbuckles and props tantalisingly tucked under the apron. In this confined space the ring ia gigantic piece of scenery, resulting in pretty much all of Lardo taking place in the ring.

And appropriately so! Inspired by cult Scottish wrestlers Grado and Wee Man, Mike Stone's Lardo gives us high-octane, Buckfast-fuelled pro-wrestling madness. You'll cheer on hungry young hopefuls clawing their way to wrestling success! You'll boo mean managers as they manipulate their impressionable wards. You'll gasp as buried family grievances are violently unearthed! All this to a thumping soundtrack of flesh on mat; a symphony of clotheslines, elbow drops and body splashes.

Our eponymous hero (Daniel Buckley) has one ambition in life; to be a successful wrestler. His dead dad was a wrestler, introducing the young Lardo to this theatrical athletic world where anything can (and usually does) happen. Now, buoyed up by his popular YouTube promotional videos, Lardo seeks a professional breakthrough. He finds it in Stairs (Nick Karimi), owner and promoter of 'Tartan Wrestling Madness'. 

TWM, boasting the sexy, dominatrix themed Whiplash (Zoe Hunter) and popular joker Wee Man (Stuart Ryan) perform to baying crowds of drunken Glaswegians every weekend. The crowd bays for violence and Stairs is all too happy to provide. Soon Lardo's joined his stable of wrestlers, his crowd pleasing antics resulting in queues round the block. But how to maintain this momentum? Stairs realises he needs to amp up the violence, growing ever more cavalier about the safety of his wrestlers. Just how far will Lardo, Whiplash, Wee Man and company go before someone's seriously injured.. or worse?

Trips to the theatre tend to involve politely and silently appreciating the drama on stage. Not so in Lardo, the show lives and dies on the audience loudly participating. We're encouraged to cheer, clap, boo, hiss and yell encouragement to the wrestlers. Here, buttoned up Islingtonites get a moment to unleash their bloodlust. There's something unnerving in watching tweed-clad, white wine sipping Guardian perusers get in touch with their inner lout for an hour or two.

You don't tend to see this sort of thing in most plays.
That sight cuts to the core of Lardo, a show that drags a traditionally working class entertainment into high-falutin' metropolitan world of fringe theatre. This makes the Lardo susceptible to the accusation that it's providing class tourism: a way for well-to-do, cultured Londoners to simulate what it's like to be poor, drunk and Glaswegian. Turns out Jarvis Cocker was right on the money when he sung  "Everybody hates a tourist / Especially one who thinks it's all such a laugh." Adding a further touch of awkwardness is that the real-like inspiration for Wee Man doesn't appear to be over the moon: "I can understand a wee bit of creative licence, but they are charging tickets for something that is blatantly ripping off my shtick".

But, rather than 'lower' theatre to accommodate wrestling, Lardo draws parallels between the two. What is wrestling if not a form of skilled, physical theatre? This argument rings true, especially as Lardo demonstrates passion, understanding and downright adoration for wrestling every single minute of its runtime. There's sincerity too, a confidence that important truths can be unearthed within the squared circle. As far as I'm concerned Lardo triumphs as an antidote to cultural snobbery, nudging its audience to re-evaluate 'lesser' artforms and, basically, to get over themselves.

Then there's the simple fact that Lardo is an incredibly entertaining piece of theatre. Every performer literally throws themselves into their roles, demonstrating physical prowess and oodles of charisma. There's no weak link in this cast; but Nick Karimi's villainous promoter stands out as a wonderfully sleazy, devil-may-care character to interact with. Zoe Hunter also impresses, her wrestle-bitch ring persona touchingly contrasted with her domestic and maternal roles. But it's Buckley's Lardo that dominates, binding together a naive innocence, ambition and good nature to create a wrestler that even the most reserved member of the audience will find it difficult not to loudly cheer on.

I had a great time, leaving the show exhilarated, happy, filled with affection towards the characters and appreciative of the physical effort put into staging this. I can't think of anything else on the London stage that's quite like Lardo. Check it out while you can.


Lardo is at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 29 March 2015. Tickets here.

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