Tanzi Libre

The new Southwark Playhouse is set to establish itself as one of the hippest London fringe venues, as it opens its new doors on Newtington Causeway with the musical-come-wrestling spectacle about a European women’s wrestling champion by the name of Tanzi Libre. Hats must be tipped to the Playhouse for taking the risk of opening with this extremely unusual production and making it extremely entertaining. The in-the-round stage has been utilised by the designer Martin Thomas, by filling the centre with a full-size wrestling ring. Like in a real match, the audience are pumped up before the show by the referee (Mark Rice-Oxley), and are encouraged to whoop, boo and heckle throughout. With a soundtrack of pumping tunes provided by DJ ‘The Riddler’ (Anthony Coleridge) and outrageous glitter and neon PVC wresting outfits (designed by Samantha Kent), it is impossible for this not to be a great night out.

The story charts Tanzi’s growth from a baby to a mother, wife and personal trainer to the professional wrestler Dean Rebel (Kazeen Tosin Amore). Tanzi (Olivia Onyehara) resists her family’s expectations of her to be a full-time housewife, instead choosing to enter the pro-wrestling world herself – rising to be European champion. She challenges her husband to wrestle on his insistence that, as a woman, it is her duty to be a full-time housewife: the first instance of a male vs. female fight in pro-wrestling history.

The show’s movement sequences are stunning. The wrestling has a dance-like fluidity, with the actors bouncing off the ring’s elastics, performing flips, lifts and engaging in extremely complex fight sequences. Director Ellie Jones has paired the Playhouse up with the London School of Lucha Libre, run by the wrestling maestro Greg Burridge. As one of Tanzi Libre’s choreographers, he has pushed the actors to the extremes of their physical capabilities.

However, the strong movement sequences are counterbalanced with relatively weak vocals. Witty musical numbers have been composed for the production by Nathan Palmer, but are delivered with markedly less confidence than the fights. However, this allows the two least physical performers – Tanzi’s Mum (Patricia Gannon) and the Ref (Oxley) – to show off their impressive voices in the second half, with Oxley giving a memorable and hilarious rendition of Piaf’s ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’.

The conflicts of Tanzi’s childhood are framed by the formalities of the wrestling match (“In the red corner… in the blue corner…!”) and are narrated by the Ref. Although this is a fun set-up, it allows little scope for individual character development because there is only a short period of time for the actors to pack in as much physical movement as possible before the bell for the next round (and therefore the next scene) rings. However, it is constantly reiterated to the audience that this is a simplified version of the back-story culminating in the fight between Tanzi and her husband. Therefore, it is perhaps excusable that the characters are given little time for self-reflection because the action must travel at 100mph in order to chart the 20-odd years of Tanzi’s life. This lack of depth matters little, however, when there is pumping music, strobe lighting, outrageous costumes and the constant encouragement to visit the bar to entertain you.

Tanzi Libre is great fun, memorable for its difference and a bold statement with which to open the new Playhouse. There is not one lazy member in this theatre’s team, as the entire event was choreographed to perfection. Hopefully this is a promise of great things to come.

Tanzi Libre is running at the Southwark Playhouse until 22 June 2013. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website. Photography by Jethro Compton.