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‘Big Daddy Vs. Giant Haystacks’ – Reviews

(Click on the links for full reviews)

‘This story charts the rise of both wrestlers and what a story it is, the show itself is funny, sad, dark, exciting and much more besides…A wonderful show brilliantly acted and deserves all the plaudits it gets.*****’ – Barry Dickson, Black Diamond FM

‘Fun, sad and exciting…..a must-see for wrestling fans and the uninitiated alike. 4.5 Stars’ – The Public Reviews

Could do for wrestling what the film The Damned United did for Brian Clough…..this show cries out for a screen treatment….. Great performance. Verdict: Knockout.’ – Quentin Letts, Daily Mail

‘Executed with gusto….Nostalgia wafts from every comical vignette and we willingly submit to the play’s charms…. Big Daddy Vs. Giant Haystacks is a knockout.****’ – Damon Smith, Metro

‘Wonderfully raucous….Big Daddy gets the crowd going with the chant of “Easy! Easy!” and that’s just how this surprise nugget goes down.****’ – Michael Coveney, WhatsOnStage

‘Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon’s excellent new play….performed with energy and panache.****’ – Robin Strapp, British Theatre Guide

‘Hilarious….side-splitting….but there are also some touching and complex moments….A champion comedy, and not just for wrestling fans.****’ – Anita Magee, Three Weeks

‘Insightful, funny and sometimes tragic…..equally as entertaining for the less informed attendee.*****’ – John Darley, Edinburgh Evening News

‘Packed with laughs, pathos and charm. It is superbly acted and beautifully, if simply presented – Highly Recommended Show’ – Anthony Macari, FringeReview

‘Sharp and funny, with some astute popular cultural referencing and more physical theatre than the entire dance programme at Summerhall.’ – Michael Coveney’s blog for WhatsOnStage

‘PICK OF THE FRINGE….Excellent piece that I’d recommend to anyone. Well, maybe not anyone who takes WWE seriously, but everyone else. Where else can unconvincing staged fighting be so much fun?’ – Chris Neville-Smith chrisontheatre


Brighton Argus
West Hill Hall, Brighton, November 11

The name Big Daddy is familiar to anyone of a certain age, who will remember wrestling on primetime TV in the early 1980s. Whether a fan or not, this very funny play followed wrestler Big Daddy’s career, famously interlinked with another behemoth of the wrestling ring, the 6ft 11in Giant Haystacks.

This was a barrel of laughs, in which Ross Gurney-Randall (Big Daddy) and David Mounfield (Giant Haystacks) skilfully pulled off a faithful account of the rise and fall of wrestling on TV at the same time as making fun of it.

Decked out in evocative bunting made out of Union Jacks, the stage easily became a wrestling ring. The pair spared themselves no blushes – it took courage at 26 and a half stones to hop about in a Lycra leotard emblazoned with the familiar big “D” and simulate the famous “belly butt”. The crowd assembled to watch Big Daddy on this occasion loved it as much as they had the real thing, eagerly chanting the signature of the time past as though it was an everyday occurence: “Easy, easy.”

With a box full of memories – including Big Daddy’s signature track, The Seekers’ We Shall Not Be Moved, A World Of Sport, Saturday TV’s Tiswas and Glitter-esque platform boots as well, the show was no doubt a catalyst for a trip down memory lane for many. However, no prior knowledge was required to enjoy it to the max.

12:29pm Monday 14th November 2011 in The Critic By Catherine Meek

Oxford Times
October 15th, Great Milton

Not the least remarkable fact to state about the wrestler known as Big Daddy is that his real name was Shirley Crabtree. He could thank his father, also Shirley, for this. “’E thought it were character-building,” said another son, Max. In this he served as a prototype — but certainly unrecognised as such — for the father of the Boy Named Sue in the famous Johnny Cash song. Whether the adult Shirley exacted a similarly bloody revenge on pop is not known.

Almost certainly not. Had he done so it would have been mentioned in Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon’s comprehensive and highly entertaining play Big Daddy Vs. Giant Haystacks. The well-written two-hander, the winner of this year’s Buxton Festival Fringe award for best theatre production, visited Great Milton last Friday under the Good Night Out scheme backed by a number of local authorities.
The gentlefolk of this pretty village, assembled in the Neighbourhood Hall bang next door to Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, will doubtless have learned from the evening more than they previously knew — more perhaps than they really wanted to know — about the seedy world, as it was seen to be, of professional grappling.

Our guide was the aforementioned Max (David Mountfield), a Mr Big of the ‘sport’, as nobody in the know ever thought it was.
As its chief promoter, he both invented and exploited his brother’s small-screen persona. Cleverly Big Daddy (Ross Gurney-Randall) was built, though good works, especially where dying children were concerned, into a ‘blue eye’, having previously been a ‘tweener’. His regular opponent meanwhile, the towering Giant Haystacks (Mountfield, again), was a ‘heel’. The three categories of fighter hardly require explanation.

Between them, the two actors gave us a fine gallery of characters, including Gurney-Randall’s spot-on Paul McCartney with whom, bizarrely, Giant Haystacks once collaborated.

The night was great fun (and a nice social occasion).

More please.

20th October, 2011, By Christopher Gray

The Public Reviews
8th May, 2012 – The Lowry, Salford

The Foundry Group brings the story of two of the biggest names of the 70s and 80s to The Lowry Studio, Salford: Big Daddy vs Giant Haystacks. There were other wrestlers, and the WWE corporate behemoth in the United States has since gone on to have worldwide success, but from 1976 to 1988, millions of Britons were in the grip of an extraordinary sports phenomenon: watching two fat men pretend to fight each other. Shops would shut early, ITV got 12 million viewers every week and Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks were the biggest draws.

In this award-winning production, Ross Gurney-Randall plays Big Daddy (real name Shirley Crabtree) and David Mounfield takes on the role of his nemesis, Giant Haystacks (real name Martin Ruane, fake real name Luke McMasters). Both actors play celebrities, other wrestlers as well as each others’ managers. Of the two, Haystacks is the more intriguing personality here, seeming a reluctant wrestler and enigmatic. Crabtree seems the more ‘obvious’ candidate, with a long history of wrestling in his family and a pushy brother for a manager – though as we learn, he was a dreadful wrestler!

Writer Brian Mitchell said he wanted to write the story because of the colourful characters as well as contemporary resonance – it features corruption and exploitation, which rarely seem far away from sport. He and co-writer Joseph Nixon have successfully brought this to the stage. More than just Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, it’s the story of wrestling, with a glimpse at the history of sport on TV and of Britain at the time, with a brief glimpse of the rise of the WWE in America.
The staging is simple, a plain black curtained area is strewn with union flags, and a red and blue chair form the furniture. There’s even a dustbin at the side of the stage for discarded props. The props and costumes are simple but effective – a blond wig, a tiara, a handbag – transforming Gurney-Randall and Mounfield, implausibly, into recognisable characters from Chris Tarrant to Margaret Thatcher.

The first act narrated mainly by Max Crabtree (Mounfield), Big Daddy’s manager, is full of pace with director Mitchell barely allowing a moment to draw breath between laughs, as the audience sees the careers of both men take off. There was meant to be a great feud between the two men but I’m not sure how vividly that came across, with other relationships taking more precedence. ~The act ends with the only moment of wrestling, a great end to an upbeat act and with lots of cheering from the engaged audience.

The second act is slower, dealing more with the darker side of the business including its television axe and a series of tabloid exposés. But it still has warmth and humour – Giant Haystacks meeting Paul McCartney is a surreal moment popular history should replay more often!

There’s such a fondness in Big Daddy vs Giant Haystacks, and some nicely knowing moments from writers Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon – alluding to Mounfield not being quite as Giant as the man he portrays, and ‘Max Crabtree’ referring to the writers contacting him about writing the play.

This award-winning ambitious comedy brings back Saturday afternoon nostalgia to the audience – complete with soundtrack, personalities and – yes! – some leotard-wearing grappling. I would have liked a little more wrestling as it’s so comic. The obvious draw of the production is nostalgia, but it’s a cleverly written comedy, performed with excellent timing – and some very sweet, poignant moments, including a funeral and Big Daddy’s visits to terminally ill children in hospital.

Reviewer: Laura Maley, May 9th, 2012

‘Seconds Out, Round One’
8th May 2012, Lowry Studio Theatre

This blog tends to view the world through a matrix of Quentin Crisp references, and this post will be no different, despite its subject matter. Mr Crisp explained his own rise to notoriety as a consequence of British televisions having only two channels – that his own biopic, The Naked Civil Servant, clashed with a dull documentary on the other side was the only reason a mainstream seventies audience tuned into a programme celebrating the life of a flamboyant homosexual. Mr Crisp was not the only oddity thrust into the limelight through the vagaries of British television scheduling – indeed, as ‘Big Daddy vs Giant Haystacks’ shows, they came in all shapes and sizes.

British wrestling was big business in the seventies, filling civic halls throughout the land with a mix of handbag-wielding, sweet-throwing grannies, overenthusiastic children and blokes simply wanting to watch a bit of a scrap at the end of their working day. The stars were a mixture of the exotic and the mundane (Kendo Nagasaki, the oriental martial arts expert, was in reality a plumber from Stoke), but towering above them all, literally and figuratively, were the colossal figures of Big Daddy (6’3”, 24 stone, 64 inch chest) and Giant Haystacks (6’11”, 40 stone, no definite article). This play traces the history of these two quintessentially British figures, and the rise and fall of a national institution.

‘Big Daddy vs Giant Haystacks’ begins with the would-be impresario Max Crabtree visiting his unemployed brother, Shirley, to set out his vision of transforming the world of sport. The narrative unfurls as we see Max mould this unpromising raw material into a national hero, helping Shirley to find his own style and a new identity which would make him a household name, as Big Daddy. Crucial to this process was the discovery of his nemesis, Giant Haystacks – ‘every blue-eye needs his heel’. From Shirley’s kitchen, we are transported to the Albert Hall, Wembley Stadium and into homes across the country, every Saturday afternoon.

Throughout the play, actors Ross Gurney-Randall and David Mounfield take on multiple roles, including Paul McCartney, Frank Sinatra, Chris Tarrant and Greg Dyke, as well as the eponymous heroes. These portrayals don’t aim for veracity, but instead kept the action moving along at pace, and the lack of depth helped to capture the breathtaking and unreal rise of Daddy and Haystacks – especially the bum-pinching cameos from Princess Margaret and Thatcher. The performers made the most of a limited set of props, going through a dressing-up box of hats and wigs to denote different characters, and standing on a chair to convey the sheer size of Haystacks.
It would be easy to portray these larger-than-life individuals as caricatures, to be laughed at or pitied, but Gurney-Randall and Mountfield ensure that Daddy and Haystacks always maintain an air of dignity, even if the actors themselves do not. Big Daddy is given emotional depth, reacting to in-ring accidents, betrayals, and the demands of the public, while Haystacks is imbued with a greater articulacy, responding to Paul McCartney’s patronising tone (‘It’s a pun, a play on words’) with the comment ‘An ellipsis of meaning, yeah, I get it’.

Throughout the performance, the actors interacted with the audience, who chanted along with Big Daddy, and made their views clear on the American wrestlers who usurped them. At times, the play had the feel of a seaside amusement or vaudeville performance rather than the more experimental work which might be the Lowry Studio’s stock-in-trade, heightened by the use of wrestling slang and some earthy invective from Max Crabtree (‘you useless bollock’). There is also some fine physical comedy, as the paunchy actors don leotards and platform boots to recreate the Daddy vs Haystacks clash at Wembley.

In the end, it is the media that brings these two giants down to earth, a series of Sun exposes allowing the ambitious Greg Dyke to remove wrestling from his television schedules. Wrestling’s fall from grace is as swift as its ascent, and we see the two men struggling to adapt to their new situation, before succumbing to a stroke and cancer respectively. The play presents the series of disasters which led to the downfall with an air of acceptance; the characters are from another time, and simply could and would not adapt to the Americanised culture of the late 80s. The one who attempted to, Haystacks, found himself bewildered and out of his depth. The script is occasionally self-referential, and plays out on a monologue from Max Crabtree. In typical form, he abuses the writers (‘some bollock who probably went to university’) and remains his own man (‘never look back, I say’).

A very mixed crowd went home happy, sending the actors on their way with a final chant of ‘ea-sy, ea-sy’ before trooping out to the strains of ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’. Various cultural figures including pop historian Simon Garfield, pop musician Luke Haines and pop artist Jeremy Deller have presented tributes to wrestling in recent times, each lending some cultural heft or outsider status to the subject. This play does not attempt to intellectualise the figures it celebrates, but captures their spirit in an entertaining and affectionate manner, and probably with much greater appeal to their original audience.

Blog posted Wednesday, 9 May 2012 by ‘Workshy Fop’ – http://workshyfop.blogspot.co.uk

Fringe Review
Buxton Festival Fringe 2011
Venue: The Studio Theatre, Pavilion Arts Centre.

In the 70′s and 80′s, Saturday afternoon TV was dominated by two fat blokes in leotards pretending to wrestle, far more theatre than sport.  This well-written, pacey two-man show tells the story of the two most famous protagonists and the machinations of their promoters.
Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon’s play will ring all kinds of bells with those of a certain age.  In the 70’s on a Saturday afternoon the wrestling was a key part of, dare I say it, the naffness of televised sport on a certain channel, definitely more theatre than sport, and the Foundry Group bring it all to life before our very eyes.

The tannoy announces Big Daddy and he comes on to chants of ‘Easy! Easy!’  This then is the story of Shirley Crabtree, aka Big Daddy and his brother/agent, Max.  Big Daddy has seen better days as a wrestler and the ambitious Max wants to resurrect his career. Big Daddy is not sure, feels a revival might be undignified, but there is no doubt who is in charge here.  Qualms do not feature too highly on Max’s lists of priorities.  Is the sport fixed?  It’s entertainment!  All the audience want to see is freaks!  This is more about style than talent.  So Big Daddy is wheeled out again as John Bull in a leotard.

Actors Ross Gurney-Randall and David Mountfield play an array of characters with tremendous versatility.  There are cameos from Billy Graham (not that one), Sinatra (yes, that one), Paul Mc Cartney, Chris Tarrant and Princess Margaret, TV moguls Dyke and Birt, more promoters in the forms of cockney Jacky and the American Bishop as well as the more substantial roles of Brian Dixon and of course, bouncer Martin/ Louie aka Giant Haystax.  The interplay between the latter and Big Daddy is just what the sport, and more specifically the calculating Max, have been crying out for – a pantomime villain, a heel to Big Daddy’s blueye, light versus dark. The 6 foot 11 Haystax cuts an impressive figure in his white lurex platform boots as he flicks V-signs at the booing audience while complaining that the referee was unfair.

The pace is incredibly quick for players who claim to be over the hill.  The actors change character in rapid succession, frequently within the same scene with little in the way of visual props (Haystax conveys his height by standing on a chair)  or costumes, save the ridiculous leotard and spandex outfit.  The various accents – cockney wide-boy, bullying US promoter, West Midlands wheeler-dealer  -  and personae are superb, although some of the brief vignettes work better than others.  At the risk of alienating readers by indirectly criticizing a national treasure, I admit that I found the scene with Macca a little corny (perhaps appropriately);  the interaction between Birt and Dyke, by contrast, was sharp and witty. As is much of the writing – Big Daddy is faced with the idea of going somewhere far, far, away, perhaps even more so than Sheffield or Rotherham.  Max’s reaction to him trying to lose weight is priceless.  Later on, the notion of suing Big Daddy is likened to suing Bambi.  I particularly liked the contradiction between the oafish, boorish Haystax and his occasional brushes with articulate expression, name-checking tautologies, oxymorons and ‘an ellipsis of meaning’.  Amongst all the capering and witticism there are also moments of sadness, and the tone of the last part of the play is altogether darker.

The atmosphere of the 70’s and 80’s in all their glory is vividly re-created, with nostalgic visits to Tiswas and background music from that era.  Less happily, there are references to the Falklands and thunderings from the super soaraway Sun.  Even Power Rangers get a look in.  The direction is always pacey and the fighting, like the original, well-choreographed.

This is a show that cries out for audience participation, so it is a shame that there are only 10 or so (admittedly very game) spectators.  The wrestling protagonists do their best, although perhaps the booed Haystax could have hammed up his villain’s role a little more, but the chants of ‘Easy! Easy!’ and the catcalls would have been more effective with a bigger audience.  Which is one reason why more of you should come and see this cleverly written and action-packed show.

Reviewed by Ian Hamilton 15/7/11

Buxton Festival Fringe Reviews

This fast-paced spectacular brings us the story of two larger-than-life characters from the glory days of British wrestling when for over a decade from the mid 1970s the nation delighted to the antics of grown men in leotards pretending to do battle in the ring. It may have been a dubious sport but as sheer entertainment it was hard to beat and this show by writers Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon brilliantly captures the atmosphere of those heady days – reminding those of us who used to watch on Saturdays at 4pm just why it was unmissable, and giving those too young to remember a taste of this theatricality from a simpler age.

From the off the audience is drawn into the action as the master of ceremonies gathers us together at the front to create a “true” wrestling audience – tonight there’ll be “no lurking at the back”.
But we start with Shirley Crabtree considering retiring from the game with his wrestling career somewhat in the doldrums. His promoter brother Max has other ideas and grand plans – he wants to make wresting “bigger than darts” but needs an image for his brother. After trying a few that don’t catch fire (Battling Guardsman and the Blond Adonis) they hit on Big Daddy and develop his trademark Belly Butts and Belly Splashes to dispatch opponents.

We have our British Bulldog “blue eye” but he needs a “heel” and soon finds one in the towering shape of a 6 foot 11 inch bouncer from Salford. Giant Haystacks (for it is he) fills the role admirably and is brilliantly portrayed by David Mounfield who brings out the complexity of this deeply religious man who won’t wrestle on a Sunday and pronounces in flat Mancunian tones that “I like to be alone with me thoughts”.

The scene is now set for the story of the rise and fall of this dynamic duo and it is told with panache and a pleasing level of wrestling detail. There is a sureness of touch from the writing, which treads a fine line between pathos and belly laughs, and the acting from Ross Gurney-Randall and David Mounfield is consistently excellent.

The highlight for me was a complete staged bout between the two wrestlers recreating all the moves and fighters’ theatricality. We needed little encouragement to cheer Big Daddy with his signature chant of “Easy, Easy” and to boo the misunderstood baddy who remonstrated with the crowd over the unfairness of his handling while tromping around in silver platform boots, flicking vs at the audience.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing of all about this show was how it demonstrated that even today, wrestling with all its melodrama still works as pure entertainment, more theatre than sport, and all the better for it. Highly recommended.

Dan Osborne

FringeGuru Editor’s Choice Awards
Brighton Fringe, 2011, The Old Courtroom

The glory days of British wrestling aren’t an obvious topic for a sensitive, serious play – but once again, local playwrights Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon have extracted thoughtful theatre from the kitschiest of themes.  This play’s still a rough diamond, but deserves its award both for clever scripting and a gutsy delivery on stage.  There’s intrigue, grappling, outrageous costumes… and some moments of unexpected tenderness from a parade of very big men. 

The Solitary Bee (Philip Reeve’s blog)
MAY 2011

Last year I reviewed Those Magnificent Men, Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon’s brilliant little play about Alcock and Brown, which used the story of those pioneer aviators to explore history, the nature of fame, and the recent trend for using real-life figures as the basis for plays which explore history and the nature of fame.  Their latest work, Big Daddy vs Giant Haystacks, which premiered on Wednesday night as part of the Brighton Festival, takes a similar approach.  With two small chairs and two large actors, it recreates the period from 1972 to 1988 when British Saturday afternoon TV schedules were dominated by scenes like this…

In some ways Big Daddy… is even more ambitious that its predecessor. Actors Ross Gurney-Randall and David Mounfield don’t just portray Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks, but an immense supporting cast of lesser wrestlers, managers, and TV executives; there are even walk-on parts for Paul McCartney, Frank Sinatra and Princess Margaret.  This constant switching from one role to another, one accent to the next, must be hard work for the actors, and would be hard work for the audience too if the writing were not so accomplished.  As it is, the characters are always careful to remind us who they are, to keep up to speed on what they’re doing and what’s happening in the wider world of wrestling at each particular moment.  It’s all as funny as we’ve come to expect from Mitchell and Nixon, but it’s never just funny: they have a deep sympathy for the people they write about.  Ross Gurney Randall’s Big Daddy is particularly impressive; reluctant at first, then half believing his own publicity; his unease at having to visit the bedsides of dying children as part of his brother’s publicity schemes, and his grief and guilt about the death of an opponent, are exceptionally well-drawn; he’s almost a tragic figure (albeit a 26 stone tragic figure in a spangly leotard).

Our narrator for much of the evening, and the ring-master who holds all the disparate strands together, is Max Crabtree, Big Daddy’s brother and manager.  He’s played winningly by David Mounfield as a cheapskate north-country Machiavelli who dreams of “owning the whole of wrestling”.  ”I’ll be your Virgil in this Dante’s Inferno,” he tells us as the show begins, and goes on to set the tone for much of what follows; “That’s not the kind of reference I’d make in real life, but this is a play and I’m a sort of semi-fictional character, so I think we can get away with it…”

Stingy, scheming and manipulative, Crabtree could be easily be the play’s villain, but he’s too well-drawn, too fully rounded to be just a heel.  That role is reserved for Greg Dyke, best known nowadays as a dodgy Director General of the BBC, but who cut his teeth on London Weekend Television’s World of Sport programme, and was responsible for taking wrestling off TV.  Portrayed by Ross Gurney-Randall as a venomous cockney psychopath, he embodies one of the show’s themes; the shift of power from the north in the 1970s to the London ‘barrow boys’ who dominated the 1980s.  The tussles between Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks are the visual and comic highlights of the piece, but the real battle comes in the scene where Dyke and Max Crabtree confront one another; a high-stakes bout with the future of wrestling as the prize.

We know who won in the end, of course.  The London elite who run British TV didn’t like wrestling and didn’t want to show it, and without TV it withered.  It’s not something you hear much about these days. Nostalgic TV shows and newspaper articles are forever exhuming the pop-culture detritus of the 1970s, but they tend to focus on things which middle-class North Londoners approve of, not these embarrassing pantomime gladiators whose fanbase was always in the provinces.  As well as giving us a laugh, this well-researched play is drawing attention to an odd little corner of our culture that has been not so much forgotten as deliberately suppressed.

That said, the eagerness with which the Brighton Festival audience joined in Big Daddy’s signature chant of, “Easy!  Easy!” suggests that fond memories of wrestling survive even among hip urban types in the south east.  When it tours the north, Giant Haystack’s final soliloquy, in which he predicts that ‘Wrestling will be back!” is going to bring the house down.

Review by Philip Reeve – http://the-solitary-bee.blogspot.co.uk

Saturday, 28 May 2011 – The Old Courtroom Theatre

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.

Reviewed by Richard Stamp

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