Theatre review: LARDO, Old Red Lion Theatre, March 6th 2015

tn-500_ld1Parts of this review originally appeared on BroadwayWorld UK.

All the other reviews I’ve read of this play are prefaced with a little note that the critic isn’t a professional wrestling fan, and they go on to use terms such as “bonkers” or “far-fetched” to describe it.

Well, I am a professional wrestling fan, and ‘Lardo’, while funny and surreal in places, is very much rooted in life.

There’s our hero, of course, played by the endearing Daniel Buckley, and clearly inspired by Grado – right down to the bum-bag slung round his waist.

The promotion he works for, Tartan Wrestling Madness, is becoming more and more hardcore, with use of barbed wire and scissor blades and unprotected chairshots to the head. (If it sounds like ICW to you, then you may also like to wonder if the ‘Joker’ referred to is at all inspired by Jack Jester.)

It was coincidental but appropriate that the play opened in a week when the biggest wrestling promotion on the planet has been dealing with allegations that one of its trainers has been working with novices in a rather too-tough, too-violent way.

Of course, Lardo’s promoter Gavin Stairs (out to make as much money as possible, and not bothered about who’s injured in the process) is absolutely evil – but even his behaviour is grounded in something completely plausible, as he turned bitter and sadistic after an injury wrecked his own in-ring career.

You can imagine Stairs doing well, too – his nickname The Heartbreaker is perhaps a nod to the Heartbreak Kid, and Nick Karimi is wonderful in the role, all compelling yet repulsive heel magnetism. He doesn’t give a damn about the wellbeing of his roster, who are desperate to please him – even to the extent of risking their lives. Wee Man (Stuart Ryan) will do whatever it takes to stay at the top of the card, and that includes suffering a detached retina and then getting right back in the ring.

The womenfolk are good too – Zoe Hunter is the standout as ‘Whiplash’ Mary, with Rebecca Pownall impressive as the too-easily-seduced council officer, while Laura Darrall suffers from a slightly underwritten role as Lardo’s girlfriend Kelly.

The in-ring action is choreographed and performed excellently – the audience are involved from the off, serving as the rowdy TWM crowd – and particularly impressive is the moment when the play turns on a dime and the pantomime of pro wrestling descends into real violence. The change in atmosphere is immediate and palpable.

Yes, occasionally Mike Stone’s script veers towards melodramatic – but that’s the world of professional wrestling. The truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, after all.

In fact, the only unrealistic note is struck when Lardo is promised a match against a leading WWE Superstar. An obsessive fan like him would know that WWE wouldn’t allow their talent to compete for another promotion in that way.

Still, it’s an entertaining first-time effort from Stone, and it’s done terrific justice by its cast, impressive throughout in their characters and in the ring.

Lardo runs at the Old Red Lion Theatre.

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