Edinburgh Fringe 2011
Well. It is difficult, to say the least, to put into words the extraordinary experience that was The Wrestling. What was it? A single night in which stand-up comedians and pro wrestlers came together in glorious unity, for what can only be described as an explosion of testosterone, noise and sheer hilarity.
This unlikely festival offering is the brain-child of Max and Ivan, the sketch comedy duo of the rather more sedate-looking show Holmes and Watson. Max Olesker, before becoming a comedian, was curiously once a teenage pro-wrestler. They managed to sell out the 700-seat Pleasance Grand to a massive crowd of blood- and comedy-thirsty punters.
The set-up was thus: two teams of wrestlers and comedians, one standing for Good, another for Evil, took part in three bouts for glory in the centre ring. We meet Matthew “Pacifist” Crosby first, playing the roving reporter, hosting “live” filmed interviews with sketch groups including Idiots of Ants, The Noise Next Door and Late Night Gimp Fight getting psyched for the big match (incidentally, it is a crime if Crosby doesn’t get a TV hosting gig out of this festival, because he is in his element in the role). These, interspersed with filmed messages from the competing comics, including Thwor (Colin Hoult), Adam Riches and Jessica Ransom as an evil couple and Russell Kane as the manager of the good team were projected on an immense screen as the audience filed in, gearing us up before the live action began. Nick Helm was perfect as a sweating, ramshackle, hoarse MC, and he introduced our commentators, Andrew Maxwell and Brendon Burns, the Ref (wearing a kosher bow-tie) and finally, the first wrestlers and their posses, who entered from the back of the auditorium, making their way down the aisles like gods.
The only word to aptly describe what followed is mayhem. Or perhaps pandemonium. Or some thrilling mixture of the two. Mandemonium, maybe? I will be the first to say that I have no interest in wrestling. But the beauty of this unique fusion is that comedians and wrestlers are both performers who improvise as they go, grab attention, and bounce off the crowd while vying for their approval. There is danger in comedy of not winning an audience, just as there is danger of losing a wrestling bout, so putting a group of them largely unrehearsed on a stage is a recipe for incredibly organic, visceral entertainment, and The Wrestling tapped into the purest instincts of the performers and the audience, hearkening back to the glory days of the Roman Coliseum.
There were times when three fights broke out at once. Patrick “The Cuddler” Monahan appeared to sincerely irritate one of the wrestlers, who threw chairs at him from across the stage. The front row was not a safe place to be. There were flips and body-slams; Monahan was (I’m informed) the recipient of a Tombstone Piledriver from “The Vigilante” Johnny Moss. The commentary from Andrew Maxwell and Brendon Burns brought a sense of narrative to the fighting, with Maxwell from the beginning making the fickle crowd support the Good side, with his surprisingly catchy chant of “Fair Play! Decency!” a crowd favourite. His one-liners made him a real star of the proceedings, as he played on his image as a fresh-faced, naïve Irishman, and such twee pronouncements as “my microphone is amplified by the love of Jesus”, when Burns’ mic was off, made the crowd roar their endorsement. Frisky and Mannish were the half-time entertainment, Abandoman did a warm-up rap, Mark Watson played someone’s manager. If anything there were too many drawcard names, with the result being that sometimes you didn’t know where to look.
Another highlight was a cameo from Max and Ivan in which Ivan turned on Max during a heartfelt speech of thanks, beating him up with a stool. This called into question Max’s ability to wrestle, and was later seen diagnosed by doctors in the form of the Beta Males in another filmed sketch. Unfortunately, it turned out to have been tempting fate, because when he eventually did wrestle, “Max Voltage” injured an ankle.
The Wrestling is destined to become a Fringe institution. It was undeniably the ticket to have this year. As Max said before being attacked with a piece of furniture, it could only happen here, and he’s absolutely right. Only the world’s biggest fringe festival could support such a manic notion and see it turn into such an unforgettable occasion. To give it any less than five stars would be like chokeslamming a puppy. Just plain wrong.