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No-holds-barred show is a real knockout

Glory, Belgrade, to April 13.

A wrestling ring dominates the studio floor. The audience has ringside seats. This is the interior of Jim Glory’s Gym, which has clearly seen better days. Jim’s bright red wrestling boots stand on top of a cupboard, emblematic of their owner’s more colourful past. Now, Jim is a relic of UK wrestling’s heyday when he was Jim "Glorious" Glory, reducing Giant Haystacks, in his words, "to a pile of twigs". In less accomplished hands, Glory, from the Red Ladder theatre company, could have turned out to be a nostalgic recollection of the days of grunt ’n groan naffness, when Kent Walton’s commentaries killed time before the football scores arrived. But the involvement of Red Ladder, with 50 years of provocative, hard-hitting theatre behind them, ensures this is anything but. Jim Glory is a man of his time, wedded to the idea of wrestling as theatre, putting on a show. He wants "a story", and wrestlers must conform to hero or villain stereotypes, or as Jim puts it, "baby faces or heels". Instead, as three young men from our multi-cultural streets arrive in his gym, each escaping their own particular nightmare, he gets stories he never anticipated.

Dan, British/Chinese, won’t accept being cast as "a heel", or as Jim would have it on his spandex cape, "yellow peril". He lives it every day in his father’s takeaway, with the casual racial abuse and frequent violence. Then there’s Black/British Ben, incubating undiagnosed PTSD from his time in Iraq, for whom the arrival of a third individual, Syrian asylum-seeker Sami, is a catalyst which provokes a spectacular meltdown. Sami himself, polite, self-effacing and a champion wrestler from his home country, has his own heart-breaking story of loss and suffering. If this sounds bleak, it really isn’t. There is much humour, mainly channelled through the larger-than-life character of Jim (Jamie Smelt). Clinging on to the idea that he was once a somebody, Jim philosophises entertainingly on wrestling and its cultural significance ("wrestling’s Chekhov to the likes of us"). He exhorts his trainees with liberal quotes from Shakespeare, delivered with appropriate dramatic flourish, and is quite prepared to get in the ring and force his portly body to attempt things it is obviously no longer capable of doing. Not so with the other three cast members. This is physical theatre at it’s most physical, as there is plenty of wrestling for them to do, and they do it with conviction and not a little skill. (There were wrestlers in the audience at press night, and the actors earned their whole-hearted approval). One caveat if you’re thinking of going - this has an age advisory limlt of 14 years, as the language is strong throughout, and racial epithets abound. You check in your sensitivities at the door of Jim Glory’s gym, then the production gets you in a headlock from which you can’t break loose. Excellent.

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