First things first, it's great to see the Southwark Playhouse open again. Set halfway down Newington Causeway, their first programming choice is Clare Luckham's Tanzi Libre, a ‘play with songs’ about female empowerment.
It’s set in a wrestling ring, the audience placed in the round and encouraged to support whichever character they empathise with the most. Through ten rounds, we see Tanzi (Olivia Onyehara, versatile) grow up from birth to adulthood, go through marriage and decide on a career in the ring.
Unfortunately, the venue is far more impressive than this peculiar, dated play, which seems an odd choice to debut with. Originally performed in the West End as Trafford Tanzi back in the 1980s (with Toyah Wilcox in the lead role) it’s easy to see that perhaps it spoke more to audiences then.
But bringing it back exposes the terrible script, the one-sided characterisations, and the attempts at reverse psychology feminism through vicious, biting insults on Tanzi’s decision to make a life for herself. It just doesn’t work.
It’s a shame, too, that the singing isn’t better, with some almost amateur and often off-key warbling occurring in solos, although both Mark Rice-Oxley (Ref) and Patricia Gannon (Tanzi’s Mum) show their vocal ability with, respectively, renditions of ‘Je Ne Regrette Rien’ and ‘Stand By Your Man’ (some great high notes from Gannon here). Perhaps this is what the director, or the writer wants. If so, why?
As expected, the best thing about this is the wrestling, which they’ve clearly worked hard on. It’s wonderfully balletic and powerful, some of the throws inducing genuine gasps of fear, the way the actors hold themselves afterwards cleverly causing concern for their wellbeing. Full credit must go to choreographers Greg Burridge and Garry Vanderhorne, as well as trainer Ben Bodecker, all of whom have done sterling work with the cast.
While the actors try hard – and seem to be having a great deal of fun – the weak direction and baffling and badly structured script (act conclusions are curiously anti-climactic) mean that the end comes as more of a relief than anything else. The idea has potential, but the script is just too rotten to make it a success.