This review will consider Hackney Wick Wrestling, a show presented by independent wrestling school and promotion Hustle Wrestling, taking place for one night only at the Colour Factory.
In terms of aesthetics, the vast majority of the wrestlers are indistinct at best. Amidst the mere shirtless men, it is difficult to discern any established wrestler types beyond the overly caricatural: the fabulous queer male, the burlesquely female, the villainous duo, the rubber duck mascot, etc. Whilst the former of this list, Cassius, has generally consolidated his profile well, most of the visual motifs and gestures used by these wrestlers are over-relied upon to denote types, and we are offered little else beyond these, meaning that representations remain superficial and repetitious: Nina Samuels's dainty lifts of the arm, accompanied by the drop of a stiff hand, or the triangle Liam Massett and Cairo form with their fingers. These are powerful images in themselves but remain shallow and somewhat ineffective with nothing to compare them to: how can we know that Nina is now truly enraged, if we have hitherto only seen her bitter and angry, for instance? Visuals are an incredibly important aspect of wrestling, especially where narrative is concerned, and such superficiality may compromise intrigue and depth, increasing predictability and formal rigidity.
It is important that all wrestlers have a vast repertoire of quirks, gestures, catchphrases and aesthetic attributes, etc., to concretise a more profound, and thus more interesting, profile. Equally, it is important that these characteristic qualities complement the wrestler's performance type: Cassius's screaming when attacking, or being attacked himself, and his somewhat catlike or gymnastic movements, for example, complement his profile's flamboyancy. Unfortunately, I cannot see how Nina’s bitchiness, arrogance and snobbishness outside of the ring come into play in her in-ring performances, or what role another wrestler’s rubber ducks have in his [in fact, he actually left his rubber duck with an audience member — more on this below]. Furthermore, Liam Massett and Cairo's actions as an obvious duo are too few to be noteworthy. These are only a few of the examples I could offer here. In short, more than costume and gestural motif is needed here to consolidate the wrestler’s profile.
Sticking with visuals, I shall turn my attention towards technical elements. The lighting design (by the Colour Factory) for this performance is…rocky. Transitional and preluding lighting effects are notably spectacular, engaging and dynamic, and the natural washes that flood the stage during the matches themselves are effective in their perhaps necessary simplicity; anything else for these particular matches would be too distracting and superfluous, especially for the battle royale. However, in wrestlers’ entrances, lighting design is incredibly poor, which is most subtractive, given how important these initial impressions will always be. Spots fail both to illuminate stationary subjects and to follow those moving about the floor outside of the ring. Both an issue of blocking and presentation as well as of tech, wrestlers remain practically invisible whilst roaming this floor, interacting with audience members and, supposedly, making their presence known. Tech here needs to be urgently readdressed. Then, we have sound (designed by Jonathan Woodhouse). Sound is deafeningly loud — to the point where I would rather urge that earplugs be offered to audience members — and this is a problem most significant to KAO’s three performances during the half-time interval. Unfortunately, diction and variety in choreography are terrible between the two, though I will note that music is satisfactory and presentations to each audience section are wonderfully handled, perhaps better than in the main action itself. I cannot comment on the lyrics, due to this issue with diction, volume and indecipherability. Otherwise, music is used excellently, overall, and theme tunes establish wrestlers well. I would just pay closer attention to how music complements and facilitates this aforementioned need for deeper wrestler profiling; as profiles are better established, music may seem all the more incongruous. I would also note the legal concerns of copyright, particularly with Disney songs, though I cannot comment on whether rights have or have not been secured.
On to the matches themselves. The well-sought kayfabe is not a term I would immediately attribute to this performance, which is most disappointing to have to admit. The art and desire of any wrestling match is to appear — and perhaps, loosely, to be — unstaged, authentic, genuine; the dreaded adjective, ‘fake’, is both incendiary and catastrophic to a booker’s work. However, the vast majority of the action we see in this show may incontestably be described as distinctly artificial. With this show, there is one main positive and one main negative insofar as realism is concerned: throws and drops are handled impeccably well throughout by all of the wrestlers, particularly when performed by two wrestlers on one; however, stand-alone strikes, kicks and punches are entirely lacking and unfeasible. Nearly every wrestler, besides those I shall highlight below, fails to charge their attacks, i.e. to demonstrate a feasible and observable degree of impetus and tension before releasing their strikes. The result is an unbelievable attack that deals confounding and surprising damage to the wincing, crying and pleading opponents, despite the fact that they ought to be ineffectual with such a conspicuous lack of force. Most significantly, the wrestlers stick far too closely to the rehearsed choreography, failing to 'live in the moment', so to speak. By this, I refer to a shocking number of instances where strikes miss opponents altogether, and yet the opponent reacts as though they have been mortally wounded, nonetheless. I would urge that combatants pay closer attention to the live action of their marches.
There is an irksome disregard for realism in terms of continuity outside of the ring, as well. The aforementioned rubber-duck wrestler, for example, having given his jacket and rubber duck to an audience member, as detailed above, first returns to them barely able to stand, limping, wincing, etc. He then returns shortly after the match has ended, unaffected, content, uninjured, thanking the audience member once more for hanging on to his belongings, rather eager for any needless form of audience interaction. Stagehands, as clearly rehearsed, warn audience members that items, or the wrestlers themselves, will be thrown towards them, and move their tables out of the way in preparation for the falls, which obnoxiously emphasises the fictitious aspects of each relative match, in the ‘reality’ of which audience members are desperate to lose themselves. Not only for illusion and hedonistic experience but for health and safety concerns — noting we have a duty as creatives to protect the audiences of our work, of which they cannot know the boundaries — the space should be arranged in such a way that extreme rearrangements and invasions like these cannot take place. I myself was surprised to have to vacate my table altogether to make room for a reversing Max the Impaler, backing up into my table whilst retrieving another table and two chairs from under the ring — a much-awaited moment but one that felt all the more fictitious, given how these items were concealed under the ring: how would she have known they were there? Given the lack of space in the Colour Factory, meaning that audiences have little space to use in their urgent evacuation, danger here is increased to a beyond sensationalist level, becoming quite real, especially given also that their drinks end up on the now slippery floor.
Moving on to narrative. Narrative is clear-cut, coherent and well-conceived. However, its execution is poor, overall. Narrative progressions are rather glossed over, by which I mean that pivotal moments in the matches, where one opponent suddenly gains control, for example, filling with rage and attacking their unsuspecting opponent, or where a combatant comes to an opponent’s aid, etc., divide the choreography into distinct segments. With nearly all of the matches, there is no sense of gradual progression or of a significant build-up of tension; instead, the next 'segment' merely begins without introduction, and we must simply infer the narrative for ourselves and merely accept that a drastic change has occurred. One excellent example of this is during the main event match between Laura Di Matteo and Max the Impaler, where, despite all odds, underdog Laura Di Matteo rises to defeat championing beast Max the Impaler, after having been knocked completely unconscious by this formidable opponent. We are to understand that this comparatively small and weak combatant uses speed, technique and accuracy to defeat her terrifying overbearing opponent, but there is such little resistance from Max, and this transformation from unconscious victim to valiant victor is so sudden, that credibility is completely lost here in the narrative’s depiction. It is easy to feel that the creatives are merely presenting the individual story moments without care to consider how these cohere seamlessly and congruously together.
My next point is crucial to note: sitting in the Northside audience section, through which wrestlers first enter, I had a wonderful view of every wrestler throughout the entire show, extremely rarely seeing the back of any one wrestler's head. This is a terrible thing for me to note…meaning that the opposite audience section had the complete opposite experience, seeing only the backs of the wrestlers' heads. Almost all action is performed to the north of the ring, and it is clear why: photographers and videographers (Luke Ross, Constantinos Erotokritou and Geoff Alleyne) stay almost exclusively on this side, not only obscuring the audience's view but tempting the wrestlers to perform to them in this manner. Conspicuously inspired by mediatised/televised professional matches and international “lockdown” wrestling trends during the recent pandemic, it is clear that priorities lie in benefitting 'permanent' virtual audiences, as opposed to live ones. Considering it is the latter who constitute physical following and in-house audiences, not to mention monetary support, this is most undesirable. I mentioned that this is also the audience section through which wrestlers enter, and whilst some choose to mill around the four sections in an attempt to introduce themselves and hype up those members of each of the audience sections, most wrestlers simply enter indistinctly, jump into the ring and prepare to begin their match — a problem coinciding with the performance’s overall visual inadequacy. This is further dramatically exacerbated by those aforementioned spotlights that cannot keep up with the entering wrestlers, and by the absence of those spotlights around the auditorium to follow the wrestlers as they prance around the parameters of the ring.
By far the most impressive match in this performance is that between Tate Mayfairs and Adriano. This match offers great expressivity from the wrestlers; great profiles [if notably less caricatural than others, which is otherwise welcomed but incongruous with the more whimsical and aesthetically charged material]; much-needed muscular tension, anticipation and release; and a gradual progression through narrative. Whilst Tate's injury is far too sudden, the duration of his first aid support (from Jack Dengel) is most naturalistic. I would just recommend developing further dramaticism by varying the activities during in this first aid support and by changing lighting states and/or stopping music, only to resume once the match does. Also, where was a commentary from the hosts for this 'unexpected' and 'severe' occurrence? From this point on, however, with Tate tricking Adriano and regaining control of the match, we return to strikes that do not actually make contact with the body, subsequent overly expressive wincing, and a sense of rushing through the narrative.
Most disappointing are the Battle Royale and the match between Rayne Leverkeusen and Nina Samuels. These needed considerable work. As for the latter, choreography became entirely repetitive, from hair gripping to awkward body locks, with expressivity minimal and narrative shockingly unclear — in fact, this is the only match that suffered complete obscurity insofar as narrative communication is concerned. Similarly, the former is incredibly chaotic, and not in a sensationalist and exhilarating way. It is almost impossible to tell what is happening, and this is not merely because of the sheer number of wrestlers in the ring, but because choreography fails to draw the eye to specific happenings. This was, in fact, noted by several other vocal audience members. Choreography also fails to coincide with the intentions of the wrestlers. For example, there are repeatedly moments where two wrestlers are left alone by the others for enough time to toss one more opponent over the ropes, but the opponent hangs on, unbudging and stiff, refusing to be eliminated. The two wrestlers quickly give up and search for other wrestlers to eliminate... This is completely unfeasible. This is an excellent opportunity for the wrestlers to eliminate this opponent whilst they are vulnerable and on the verge of falling out of the ring; that the wrestlers would not continue to pursue this is most unrealistic — and, again, this lack of realism is intensified through repetition. It is clear that in choreographing this particular match, the creatives relied heavily upon certain wrestlers to be ‘recuperating’, ‘regaining their strength’ or trying to stay balanced on the edge of the ring, barely holding onto the last rope before tumbling to their elimination. Far too often, such weak and vulnerable wrestlers are neglected in this battle, and this is devastating where credibility is concerned. Most notably regularly neglected in this way was Ted Sabine, as an example.
Some extra notes. The second referee we are introduced to, Tom Scarborough, is intently engaged in the action, reacting to and commenting on almost everything that occurs, and this is hugely beneficial to our reading and to the credibility of the matches in which he is involved. Our first referee, however, Oscar Harding, takes some time to warm up, initially avoiding sustained eye contact with the wrestlers, delivering his lines to the air, as though it is merely what he feels is required of him. He seems distracted, somewhat disengaged, unsure of his role. That every single count should be broken by the restricted wrestler at the count of two really drives home this unwanted and intense sense of structure, artificiality and rehearsal; variation is required here: a count broken at "one", another at "two", and another broken before "one" has barely left the referee's mouth, for example, would make these suspenseful moments feel all the more realistic. That the ‘hosts’ sit shrouded in darkness in front of the tech board, invisible to the audience whom they address only via overhead speaker, is most underwhelming. In this way, it feels as though the creatives felt compelled to go through the motions of a conventional wrestling match without dedicating too much energy and patience to features like these that actually work the audience and structure their work. Barring one, the hosts lack sufficient energy and fail to command the space, most notably in their introduction. The fact that the padding where turnbuckles meet the ropes at the ring post is so exaggeratively large connotes an overly protective environment, a resistance from pain, blood and injury, but perhaps this is excusable given the nature of Hustle Wrestling's schooling work.
Overall, despite my criticisms above, this show has great vitality and variety. Matches see intriguing opponent pairs, overall, and underlying narratives are refined and coherent, if sometimes predictable. I would just pay greater attention to how rehearsal and training might combine with extemporisation; at the moment, there is a rigid fixation upon pre-established choreography that compromises credibility during live performance. The more extreme stunts have clearly consumed the creatives' focus, and I would recommend now that better thought be given to subtler and interstitial action.