London’s inaugural Just For Laughs Festival closed with a bang last night. Or rather a thump. In fact make that a lot of thumps, as comedians swapped punchlines for punches and took on professional fighters in aid of Comic Relief.
The concept of The Wrestling has previously been a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe, winning an Edinburgh Comedy Award Panel Prize in 2011, but this was its long overdue London debut. The comedians appearing included Aisling Bea, Iain Stirling and Nish Kumar as commentators and Suzi Ruffell as MC, but the real stars were the men and women in leotards.
Before the main bouts in the ring reigning champion Rosie Jones took on all 6ft 8 of Greg Davies, which size-wise resembled the mismatch of the millennium. And sure enough Jones was soon stretchered off. Purely for comic effect I hasten to add.
The first fight proper was between pro-wrestler Nina Samuels and Sarah Keyworth. Samuels took it very seriously and soon got “Lil Keys” in a headlock. Keyworth responded and while there were no major injuries there was a fair bit of chafing, with bodies dragged, pulled and repeatedly thwacking the canvas.
The second grapple saw the creators of the event, double act Max and Ivan, tackle foodie comic Ed Gamble and pro Levi Muir. This was a real grudge match – Max “Voltage” Olesker was a wrestler before he switched to the more combative art of comedy. Thanks to some dubious tactics plus some genuine skills Max and Ivan were victorious.
As finales go the eight-person all-in tussle that concluded the panto-ish proceedings had everything. Joe Lycett brandishing an umbrella, Glenn “Morgue” Moore bleeding, Taskmaster’s nerdy Alex Horne arriving on a Viking longship, “Ringfluencer” Abi Clarke strutting around with no trainer but a very eager social media team in tow.
At one point St Petersburg-born Olga Koch took a dramatic tumble out of the ring. Sporting justice as earlier she had shut James Acaster in a trunk to stop him competing: “If there’s one thing we’ve learnt you can’t trust Russians,” concluded Nish Kumar. And then in a shocking twist Phil Wang came back from the dead as the night’s conqueror.
Of course, wrestling is as close to showbiz as it is to sport, so it is unsurprising that it comes naturally to comedians. Everyone certainly threw themselves into it. Sometimes literally. It was frequently chaos onstage, but undeniably glorious chaos. Maybe a metaphor for something too – the triumph of good over evil? the triumph of wedgies over words?
As confetti fell it was announced that The Wrestling will return in 2024. And even better news. James Acaster has escaped from the trunk and has already been measured up for his leotard.