In the first moments of Lardo the character of Gavin Stairs, played by a bearded and muscular Nick Karimi, enters the tensioned, roped, padded, and turnbuckled ring that fills almost the full performing space of the Old Red Lion and, in half-light, he tests the ropes carefully, before performing the familiar wrestling gesture of running into the ropes, turning at the last second and – oh! – bouncing off them, before doing the same thing on the other side. For half a second, I thought he was going to end up in an audience member’s lap, but before reaching the second bounce I knew I was in safe hands, and my grin was plastered across my face, not to shift for the duration.
I want to write about precision in Metal Rabbit’s spectacular Lardo. Because the heady exhilaration that I felt for this Scottish-wrestling-themed-riot at the Old Red Lion was exceptional, and I’m fascinated about how they achieved it. I had big expectations going in – the show’s appearance on the Old Red Lion stage has been hotly anticipated not in small part because of the hyperactive excitement of the theatre’s Artistic Director (and Exeunt contributor), Stewart Pringle. Lardo encourages all-caps and chants, and the desire to gabble to your friends and buy merch (definitely an avenue worth pursuing, Metal Rabbit). It achieves this not simply with wide-eye fun and enthusiasm – though it has both in spades – but with precise execution of almost every aspect of the production.
The moves come thick and fast, from Daniel Buckley’s first hilarious one-man performances as Lardo showing off his skills, straight into tag team matches. ‘Real’ violence and ‘fake’ violence are both on show, and exquisitely delineated – so the cast elicit laughter with one punch, and then make you wince at the next. Both are ‘faked’ in the same fashion, but performed with a different quality, by attacker and recipient. We instantaneously understand that something has shifted. And though the play’s text is very funny in places – as promoter Stairs woos Health and Safety Inspector Cassie (Rebecca Pownall), or Wee Man (Stuart Ryan) makes a people’s hero of himself as a Scottish chav, driven by insult and Buckfast Tonic Wine – it is simple and sparse precisely because wrestling is this play’s emotional core.
The indie romance that bookends the play is flimsy and stands out precisely because every other line in the play is fit for purpose. Lardo uses it to repurpose the mockery he has received from others and turn it into an identity, replacing a missing father with a colourful host of freelancers. Wee Man uses wrestling to turn Buckie culture into a rallying cry and the show-stealing Zoe Hunter expresses the frustration of her character’s relationship with Stairs in her sadistic wrestling persona Whiplash Mary. Karimi himself manages to play antagonist with the restless energy of a penniless ringmaster, using and abusing his performers and spurring them on to nastier violence.
Mike Stone’s writing is screenplay lean, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler meets Filth, and it feels like a ‘Great British Film’ in the making, but the live-ness is so key to Lardo’s success – the perfect mixture of sport and story that is live wrestling, the creak of the ropes and the thwap of the floor, the insistent playfulness alongside the fierce chanting. Lardo is taut like the wrestling ring, and though the character is proud of his size, the play doesn’t have an inch of fat on it.
Exeunt’s interview with Mike Stone.