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Big Daddy vs Giant Haystacks
Published on Friday, 16 August 2013

4 stars

Assembly George Square (venue website)
1-12, 14-19, 21-26 Aug, 12:15pm-1:30pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Parents or guardians should consider the content of this show if children are attending.

“We shall not, we shall not be moved” blared the soundtrack from the Seekers, as we filed out of the theatre and into the lunchtime sun. Well, I beg to differ; at times I was deeply moved by this unlikely tale of rivalry and camaraderie, built around what initially seems the most improbable of themes. It’s a wry look back at the golden age of British wrestling – a time when, incredibly, up to twelve million people watched staged fights between overweight champions, shown live every Saturday on ITV.

The convoluted tale is filled with an array colourful heroes and villains, masterfully corralled by playwrights Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon.  A quick-marching parade of characters tell a remarkable real-life story – led, of course, by the stars of those glory days, the eponymous wrestlers Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks.  Though just two actors take on all of the roles, they capture a vast range of personalities, switching between them in the few seconds it takes to don a jacket or change a shirt.  There are comic pastiches of famous figures – a meeting between John Birt and Greg Dyke was a particular delight – and there’s even a walk-on role for Princess Margaret, deliciously represented by a sizeable gentleman wearing a tiny tiara.

I’ve seen this play performed before, at the Brighton Fringe in 2011, so I know how breathtakingly entertaining both script and cast can be.  Sadly however, on the day I attended here in Edinburgh, it didn’t quite hit the comedic heights I remember from then.  For that problem, I’m inclined to blame the intimate venue: the play’s charm lies in the fact that everything’s larger-than-life – the story, the language, even the two actors – and here it felt a touch too constrained, lacking the drive or expansiveness which could truly sell its carefully-planted motifs.

Towards the end, though, events take a serious turn, and it’s then that the actors have their chance to shine.  Playing Big Daddy, Ross Gurney-Randall delivers an unexpectedly tender portrayal – of a cheery man racked by crushing inner doubt, ultimately crystallised by a shocking, unheralded tragedy.  Perhaps inevitably in this perpetually frenetic Fringe, they storm through the plot a touch too quickly – a little more time with the characters could elevate those final scenes from the touching to the truly heartbreaking.  But there’s still an emotional heft to the second half of the script, particularly in the relationship between Big Daddy and his brother and promoter, Max.

This is a play of contrasts.  There’s some high-energy knockabout, which had the whole crowd cheering and stomping along; but there’s also some bittersweet poignancy, played with subtlety and finesse.  And if you remember the days of World Of Sport, it’s an enjoyably nostalgic show too.  They’ve picked a monster of a story to grapple with, but they’ve got its essence pinned down.

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