Lardo, Old Red Lion Theatre

Thursday 5th March 2015

Lardo. Photo: Gus Miller
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What sound does a body make when it smashes down on the tarpaulin? Come again? Yes, that’s right, you heard me. What’s that sound? Thud, I suppose. But somehow that four-letter word doesn’t convey the sheer bone-crunching agony of the wrestling ring. Maybe what it needs is a quick swig of caps: as in THUD. THUD. THUD. Yes, that’s better. Much better. After all, the sound a big body makes when it hits the floor is enough to shake the walls of the room.

Especially when, as in Mike Stone’s Lardo at the Old Red Lion theatre, that room is a cauldron — one where the heat is up and the sweats are on. As we enter this small auditorium we walk into the world of Xtreme wrestling. We’re in Glasgow, and Lardo is a large, round wrestling fanatic who wants to become a celebrity — by putting on a comedy performance. His aim is to be hired by Gavin Stairs, the fierce boss of Tartan Wrestling Madness, and whose other acts include Wee Man, Whiplash Mary (“the top dog around here is not a dog — she’s a bitch”) and the Vixen. As semiologist Roland Barthes pointed out 60 years ago, modern wrestling is all show: it’s a fake act where the wrestlers pretend to fight, a morality tale where the noblest wins. Like theatre, it’s a performance.

But Stairs has another idea: to make it real. He wants his men and women to fight as violently as they can — at whatever cost. Who cares if a wrestler gets a broken wrist or a detached retina? He doesn’t. So the play unfolds on an actual wrestling ring, which takes up most of the playing space in the tiny theatre. As the performers smack into each other, throw each other to the floor and jump on each other, we are the ringside audience, aware of every thud — sorry, THUD — every smash and every crash. It’s a visceral show, and both Stairs and Lardo manage to whip up the audience until normally staid theatregoers are chanting “Lar-do! Lar-do! Lar-do!” Some people clap, others whistle. A couple whoop. The atmosphere is amazing. But the fighting is cruel, and as bodies thump into each other, some people cover their eyes.

In breaks from the mayhem, we find out more about Lardo — the “piglet inflated with a handpump” — and about Stairs. Lardo’s relationship with his childhood sweetheart Kelly, daughter of a retired wrestler, comes under strain when she gets pregnant, and the gobby Stairs is nursing a trauma from the past. At the same time, he has to fend off Cassie, the local Health and Safety officer, who arrives for an inspection. This is not a safe sport — it’s a no brainer.

The play asks questions about celebrity, and sets up strong contrasts between image and reality. For example, Lardo specialises in making YouTube videos of himself, but the reality of his life is quite different to this upbeat propaganda. Likewise, Stone suggests that live entertainment is always yearning to go too far, that punters crave excitement and that the relationship between performers and spectators can become a toxic mix which pushes both towards the unacceptable. As Stairs argues, “People want to see violence.”

But, apart from these familiar ideas, it’s the sensations of the show that you remember. Heat, sweat, rough rap music and audience chanting. In the ring, there is tensing, grunting, pulling, rolling — and blood. And THUDs. Amid all the Spandex and Lycra, the crack cast is thoroughly convincing. Take a bow Daniel Buckley (Lardo), Nick Karimi (Stairs), Laura Darrall (Kelly), Zoe Hunter (Mary), Stuart Ryan (Wee Man) and Rebecca Pownall (Cassie). Finn Caldwell’s exciting production has a raw energy that makes your spine tingle and your face sweat — great, crazy stuff.

© Aleks Sierz

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