Writer: Nick Ahad
Director: Rod Dixon
Designer: Eleanor Bull
Fight Director/Choreographer: Kevin McCurdy
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Jim Glory, a former wrestling star, owns a rundown gym, Glory’s Gym (Get the pun? There are plenty of those, both silly and serious). He needs money to pay the mortgage and keep the gym open and has the opportunity of entering one of his fighters in a showcase for possible recruits to a lucrative American wrestling circuit – the gym’s cut of a hefty signing-on fee would keep the bailiffs from the door. He has one potential contestant, not really up to standard, then two more fighters appear, bringing prospects and problems.
It’s easy to work out where this is likely to go and to some extent it does: we have the living in the past tales and the fantasy self-importance of Jim (very entertaining, too) and the quarrels and wrestling bouts between the three possibles that we expect, but we also have a great deal more in Nick Ahad’s play, now touring in a Red Ladder co-production with the Dukes, Lancaster, and Tamasha Theatre Company.
Paradoxically, the play’s great strengths are that it is about far more than wrestling, yet it presents wrestling far more convincingly than could be expected. Ahad uses wrestling as a motif to attack racism. As Jim explains, the wrestling he is training them for is the sort that blends entertainment with sport and stages fights that have a pre-ordained storyline. In this storyline, the hero, the “babyface”, is always whiter than white. Tellingly Ahad also shows that the same people both experience and practise racism: the black former squaddie, Ben, and the son of the Chinese takeaway, Dan, resent and despise each other equally. Add Sami, a Syrian refugee, to the mix and an explosion is not far off. And Jim? He is no active racist, but still lives in the days when racial stereotyping was the norm, both in jokes and in bill-matter for wrestlers.
But wrestling is not just a way into examining racism. Under the direction of fight director Kevin McCurdy, the wrestling scenes (and they are many) are breathtakingly convincing. The action takes place in and around a wrestling ring, with (at least, at CAST) the audience close in on all four sides. When an out-of-control Ben mounts a would-be-homicidal assault on Sami, the result is terrifying. The staged routines are spectacular, just like the real thing – except that Jim’s version of wrestling is not really “real”.
Rod Dixon’s direction is direct and powerful, never afraid of expressing emotion loudly and violently, nor of silence as a tool for tension or humour – and the fact that this supremely serious play is often very funny needs stating. As befits a production which tours to clubs as well as theatres, Eleanor Bull’s designs are simple, but the detail of the set is a joy: the rubbish, papers, dust and plastic spoons nestling beneath the ring apron, the “inspiring” slogans and old fight posters, the battered filing cabinets skulking in the corner.
That just leaves a remarkable quartet of actors. Once upon a time actors were expected to know their lines and not bump into the furniture; in recent years the demands to sing, dance, play musical instruments have intensified and Glory now requires the ability to hurl themselves around a ring with perfect timing and total conviction. Joshua Lyster (Ben), Josh Hart (Dan) and Ali Azhar (Sami) also share their troubled world with us: Ben traumatised by his best friend killed by an improvised explosive device, Dan worrying for his father hospitalised by white hoodlums, Sami escaping incarceration in a Damascus prison. And Jamie Smelt is Jim Glory to the life, matter-of-fact asides punctuating fantasy and bombast, quoting Shakespeare while at the same time longing to tell that racist joke that begins, ”A black man, a Chinaman and a Syrian go into a gym…”
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed