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Big Daddy Vs Giant Haystacks
Published on Saturday, 28 May 2011

4 stars

The Old Courtroom (venue website)
26-28 May, 10:00pm-11:45pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Suitable for age 15+ only.
 Warning: Contains strong language.
 World Premiere.

EA-SY!  EA-SY!  I'm just about old enough to remember the chants when Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks took to the ring. If you're not so blessed - or if you've blotted the whole thing from your mind - then prepare to be astonished by this affectionate reminiscence on the glory of British wrestling, which continues playwrights Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon's enviable success at extracting thoughtful theatre from the kitschiest of themes.


Only two actors play a vast roll-call of characters, switching their whole tone and demeanour in the time it takes to change their shirt. Most of the characters are simple sketches, but the discipline is impressive all the same; there were rather too many line fluffs, but that was easily forgiven on this opening night. Rather like the overblown personae of the wrestlers themselves, each figure they evoke comes with a simple visual schtick. Giant Haystacks, for example, delivers most of his lines standing on pieces of furniture - a joke which, against all reason, never gets old.

Condemned to be forever Big Daddy's foil, David Mounfield plays Haystacks with a deft comic hand, delivering surprisingly intellectual insights in a lumbering, near-monotone drawl.  Mounfield is also strong as Max, Big Daddy's older brother and promoter, who doubles up as the most reliable of the play's many narrators. According to my hastily-recruited special advisor - a wrestling MC who'd travelled to Brighton specially to see the show - Max's recollections, improbable as they may seem, really are all true.

But it's Ross Gurney-Randall's Big Daddy who stands head and shoulders above this play. A big bloke by any standard, Gurney-Randall perfectly captures the wrestler's contradictory role: a cheery kids' favourite, a cynical showman, and the kind of hulk you hope you'll never meet alone on a dark night. But it's also a tender portrayal - of a man with simple emotions in an overwhelming world, and a man who's losing self-respect in ways he can't express.

But we wanted to see them fight, of course, and when the showdown came it delivered all that we'd hoped for. As the audience bayed for the trademark belly-splash, I thought I was at Kemble's Riot all over again. After the interval, though, the mood drops, as the years roll forward to our two unlikely heroes' slow and sad decline; again it's touching, but shorn of the knockabout, the script's occasional indulgences started to tell.

Doubtless Mitchell and Nixon wanted to convey wrestling's lingering demise, but it's one case where faithfulness to history could justly take a back seat to drama. In fact, the whole play has some fat to trim - though when the incidental characters are so entertaining, I can understand a reluctance to wield the scalpel. Anyway, with rumbustious writing matched by surprisingly delicate acting, Mounfield and Gurney-Randall achieve what the two wrestlers always did: they put on a stormer of a show.

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