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Down on Lucha: Tanzi Libre at Southwark Playhouse (**)

It’s certainly novel for Southwark Playhouse to open their new space in Borough/Elephant and Castle with Claire Luckham’s Trafford Tanzi, which features live wresting, but the resulting show is all flash and no substance, with a number of weak elements not quite making up for the excitement generated by setting a musical/play in a luchador ring.

It’s strange to think how similar wrestling and theatre are: in both cases, the performance is designed to entertain, although theatre’s artifice is much more strictly defined. The world of pro wrestling features any number of different styles, some of which are more artificial than others, and director Ellie Jones’ decision to move the action of Claire Luckham’s Trafford Tanzi into the feigned and painted world of luchador wrestling is, in some ways, an intriguing choice.

After all, doesn’t it make perfect sense to take the story of a female wrestler, told through various “wrestling” rounds, and apply it to the heart-pounding aerial acorobatics and high theatricality of lucha, best known for it’s face-covering masks? Well, it’s certainly not a terrible idea, but the implementation here is nowhere near as thrilling. Add that to a hackneyed story, so obvious in its twists and turns that every moment is too easy to see coming, some rather poor singing (and sound design work) and underwhelming performances, and the result is an uninspiring opening for this new venue.

Tanzi is also the name of our heroine – struggling through a poor upbringing and a tyrannical husband, Tanzi fights back to become the best wrestler in Europe and, in a cartoonish showdown, faces her own husband in the ring to settle who should stay home at look after the baby. As feminist arcs go, this is the equivalent of a bulldozer: the story it tells is so painfully obvious that there’s really no dramatic tension whatsoever. It has all of the subtlety and tension of a Rocky film, and with a script that’s largely bawled out through various wrestling holds, there’s really nothing to the story that excites.

But this is a play all about wrestling – surely that’s the high point, and the reason to see the piece? Arguably, but in this case the wrestling is really quite dull. Lucha is typified by mad aerial work and complex holds, the kind of cartoonish wrestling that is only ever fun to watch, but the actors here have clearly only barely had enough time to learn some basic moves. The most complex move is used twice to make exactly the same point, and that’s really the only wrestling highpoint – the rest is mostly held punches and grabs and the same pained face over and over (and over again). It wears thin very quickly. Printing even more complex moves that they don’t even attempt on the programme may not have helped that either.

There’s also a level at which using wrestling to represent various moments in Tanzi’s life just doesn’t work: seeing a mother beat up her baby, or a father (in tight leathers too) grapple his sixteen-year-old daughter while berating her about being touched up by young men conjures some rather unpleasant images to mind. There’s clearly no subtext here – the whole piece is played at an obnoxious, loud, in-your-face volume and pace – but that doesn’t help when your mind is making some awkward connections for you, and is surely something Jones should have considered more thoroughly.

And that’s not even the half of it. The performers struggle their way through the piece, and none of them manage to create the passion and energy that would make the show work. Mark Rice-Oxley, as the Ginger put it, should have charisma oozing from every pore and get the audience going, but his cheeky-chappy Ref simply didn’t get the audience’s blood going; people didn’t seem to be sure whether to join in and whoop and cheer or watch attentively: at one point, I think I saw a man whoop and his wife angrily shush him.

The rest of the performers have similar problems: all I remember of Olivia Onyehara is her constant “pained” expression as someone plants her into the floor again, and the singing across the board is poor, off-key and a pain to listen to. Later songs prove that many in the cast can sing, but the tinny mikes warp everything into incomprehensible noise.

No, this is not good: friends have bandied around the phrase “so bad it’s good”, and there’s something to be said for that. It is utterly ludicrous, and certainly a lot of fun at times, but judging Tanzi Libre on any theatrical scale can only end with a damning result. Hopefully Southwark Playhouse will find its feet at its new venue soon: this has all of the hallmarks of ambition outstripping ability, which is not something I ever thought I’d say about a space that’s had such consistent success in the past!


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