Last September, Leeds Living reviewed another Red Ladder Theatre Company production at the Albion Electric Warehouse, to coincide with the Company’s 50th anniversary. Stan Graham went along to review Glory at this distinctive South Accommodation Road venue.
Well, this is a first for me, a theatrical production in industrial premises. The space turns out to be perfect for the play, all the action of which takes place in and around a wrestling ring in a rundown gymnasium with the seats for the audience arranged around it as in a proper fight venue, but this was so intimate that no one was more than three rows from the ring.
Although set in the present day, there are a lot of references made to the grapplers of the 1970s who would appear on ITV’s World of Sport every Saturday afternoon following the horse racing. The commentator was a chap called Kent Walton, who was also a disc jockey on Radio Luxembourg. Although he had a Canadian accent he was born in Egypt and lived in England. The wrestlers rejoiced under names such as Giant Haystacks, Big Daddy, Billy Two Rivers and Kendo Nagasaki. The latter always wore a full head mask which he would never take off, so each week the audience would tune in to see if anyone would be able to beat him and remove it to reveal the fighter’s real identity. This is not just a nostalgic ramble. I didn’t particularly like the ‘sport’, but it is a bit of background information for the younger playgoers as it becomes relevant near the end.
Describing the play is not easy. It is basically a comedy about the cash-strapped gym owner, Jim Glory, an ex-professional but now not very successful trainer, building up a stable of young talent to showcase in front of an American promoter but, as you would expect from a Red Ladder Production, there is much more to it than that. For this production, Red Ladder has combined with The Dukes, Lancashire’s only professional producing theatre, and Tamasha Theatre Company based in London. What the play is really about is discrimination and the way in which the characters regard, not only the others in the world, but also the world’s view of themselves.
The four protagonists are carefully chosen from a mixture of backgrounds, with the catalyst being Jim Glory himself, who acts as a sort of Alf Garnett figure accentuating the racial stereotypes of the three trainee wrestlers, to provide them with an easily identifiable back story, in order to get the crowd either loving or loathing them. As with the American wrestling which is so popular now, the bouts were not just a straight forward A versus B contest but a struggle between good and evil in which the former would usually come out on top, although the bad guy had to win now and again to stir up the audience for a rematch. Guess who would win that.
Because of the predictability and the obvious choreography of the bouts, I was not a fan, but in a world of TV with only three channels, it was difficult to avoid, especially if you were waiting for the football results. Jim Glory, owner of Glory’s Gym – geddit? – was not afraid to use the language of the seventies, either. As with the original Alf Garnett, adopting stereotypical attitudes towards the young wrestlers only served to illustrate how mistaken and misguided they were. Sadly, irony is a concept not easily grasped by some people now, as then, when complaints would be received by the sackful at the BBC.
The Leeds leg of the Glory Tour is the twelfth and, as you would expect, the acting is tight and exquisitely executed. What makes it even more special is the energy expended during the evening. The play lasts over two hours, including the interval, and for most of the time the actors are in some kind of motion, either prowling around the outside of the ring or fighting within it. Ali Azhar, Joshua Lyster, and Josh Hart are obviously very fit young men with even Jamie Smelt as Jim Glory having his moments of physical exertion.
Regarding the fights (both official contests and private punch-ups) mention must be made of the Fight Director and Choreographer, Kevin McCurdy, whose work was far more convincing than the Saturday afternoon stuff ever was. You could spot the same tricks, such as the breaking of a fall using the soles of the feet or the forearms an instant before the body hit the canvass, to amplify the sound of the landing as well as prevent injury. It was breathtaking, so much so that when one of the wrestlers was thrown at speed into the ropes, the people in the audience who were sitting in the vicinity, would either duck for shelter or put their arms up for protection. Fortunately, the structure was sturdy enough to prevent mishap. The efforts of the Sound Designer, Toyo Akinbode and the Lighting Designer, Jai Morjaria, were very well synchronised, with the ring transformed from being in a seedy gym to a packed professional venue in a matter of seconds by their skill. Eleanor Bull, the designer, made the whole thing work by using the minimum number of props and space to create the maximum effect, as did Director, Rod Dixon, who pulled the whole thing together seamlessly.
Whilst this is not a mystery thriller, it would be wrong for me to divulge any spoilers which would mar your enjoyment of the production, but the interjections of pathos into the piece were all the more effective. The writer, Nick Ahad, has done a wonderful job and his balance of all of the aspects was just right.
I hope that when the play finishes its current tour on 13th April in Coventry, it won’t be long before we see it being performed again. It is far too good for a two-month long lifespan. I also hope that Producer, Anna Nguyen, is working on it already.
Glory runs at the Albion Electric Warehouse, South Accommodation Road, Leeds until Saturday, 6th April.
Stan writes Let’s Do Lunch for Leeds Living. He also reviews special events for food and drink, which sometimes takes him beyond Leeds. He has also developed an interest in writing on culture, most frequently dramatic and musical theatre.