Brighton Fringe 2011
The fascinatingly funny life story of Britain’s two best-loved wrestlers and the bizarre lives they led
For those unfamiliar with mid-Seventies to the late-Eighties television, there was a spectacle that ruled Saturday afternoons, ITV World of Sports’ wrestling. Essentially, two fat blokes in leotards slapped each other about for two minutes whilst pretending to have a fight. The Foundry Group’s new play, Big Daddy Vs. Giant Haystacks is a paean to these prodigious pummelers of yesteryear.
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). However, this double-act sees both impressively inhabiting a whole range of characters from television gurus Greg Dyke and John Birt to Paul McCartney, Frank Sinatra, Princess Margaret and many others.
Shirley Crabtree is given his stage name by his brother Max, based on Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tim Roof patriarch. “Isn’t that a bit daft?” remarks the then 23 stone wrestler—setting the humorous tone of the play. But he is soon dressed in a top hat and a costume made from an old sofa cover and his career as a “Blue Eyes” (hero) is born.
Meanwhile, 6’ 11” tall former bouncer Ruane adopts the Haystacks moniker “because the plural’s more impressive” and is sent off to learn how to wrestle in India. When he returns his manager (played by Gurney-Randall) sets him up as a “Heel” (baddie) and the perfect nemesis to Big Daddy. The dialogue flows fast and furious with laugh-out lines such as “You’re like Heathcliffe, only with glandular issues.” Whereas Big Daddy is described as “John Bull, only in a leotard with a big D on it.”
The minimal set works well, as do the wide range of props the duo employ, and the multiple seamless costume changes. There is also a great 1970’s soundtrack put together by Steven Wrigley. Both actors are accomplished and manage to portray the full gamut of emotions from the (mostly) comedic, to the sad existence both wrestlers appear to be trapped in, at the mercy of their respective managers.
Perhaps for a younger audience (anyone under 35) this odd quirk of British sports history may be a little to bizarre to comprehend but the premiere performance’s crowd lapped it up, readily joining in with Big Daddy’s chant of “Easy! Easy!” and giving the air of a real wrestling match. There is a wonderful self-awareness in the play with constant references to the writers, the play and the actors themselves – Haystacks states: “They’ll probably get some short-arse to play me and stand him on a chair,” which is exactly what Mounfield is doing as he says that. All of which heightens the humour.
Act one culminates in a climactic bout, which is both hysterical and historically accurate, lasting all of 90 seconds between the big men.
The tone of act two is more sombre, with wrestling being taken off the telly by Greg Dyke, and the two behemoths’ careers are over at the age of 50. On the surface it appears that the show is primarily about these two titans of the tarp but in fact the real men of the show are their two Machiavellian managers Max Crabtree (Mounfield) and Brian Dixon (Gurney-Randall), and their rivalry.
Renowned comedy writing duo Brian Mitchell and Joseph Nixon have created a fascinatingly funny and fact-filled piece, but therein lies the play’s only issue. In their enthusiasm to pack so much information and asides in, the work is a good half hour too long. It would benefit greatly by dropping some of the still intriguing, but less relevant scenes (notably Paul McCartney hiring Haystacks to star in Give My Regards to Broad Street) and reduce it down to a tighter 90mins running time.
Sadly this world has passed now, with the Americans adopting it and turning fat, middle-aged blokes bumping into each other, into buff comic characters with even more grandiose fanfare with the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). The days of Haystacks and Big Daddy seem quaint and parochial by comparison, but thank goodness that The Foundry Group have ensured those cheesy Saturday afternoons are not forgotten.