Review by Philip Reeve.
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.
A tour of Big Daddy versus Giant Haystacks is planned for later in the year, and I shall post details both here and on my own blog when the dates are confirmed.