Review: Dubbo Championship Wrestling, Hayes Theatre Co, Elizabeth Bay – Monday, 23 May, 2022. Reviewed by editor-at-large Gary Nunn.
Dubbo Championship Wrestling is everything a great Aussie musical should be: original, creative, uniquely Australian, the right mix of funny and tender, with a knowing sense of the innate ludicrousness of the genre.
Rose (Zoe Ioannou) has returned to Dubbo from Sydney where her mum, “feral Cheryl” (Bishanyia Vincent) and estranged dad Des (Terry Serio) used to jointly run the local wrestling show. Her dad now lives within the centre and is secretly fighting off debt notices, but tries to overlook them by looking forward to his gig as the MC of the wrestling night. After feeling lost since the family breakdown, it gives him renewed purpose.
We meet a fabulously strange array of eccentric wrestling characters. The tradie ladies (Nonie McMallum; Genevieve Lemon) are sturdy, handy and expletively foul-mouthed, which makes for some hilarious scene-stealing songs. Ozzy (Justin Smith) is the Australian hulk hogan, except tanked up on VB and not particularly committed to his craft. Mr Multicultural (Luke Leong-Tay) mixes all his cultural references into one fabulously confused melange of a character. In a satirical slight and commentary on the casual racism of the regional city, we’re encouraged to boo him each time he comes on stage. Then there’s Perfect Ten Ken (Aaron Tsindos), a blow in from America who is the only one of the motley crew who doesn’t realise that wrestling is – whisper it softly – fake.
The antiheroes of the production are Ken and feral Cheryl, hell-bent on winning the (usually rigged) $100,000 prize money. Ken does a hundred lunges every day, a hundred squats every day, planks for an hour, every day. This makes for a fantastically catchy chant, and the signature catch-cry of his appearances on stage.
Dubbo itself is a character in this musical – it inspires its own anthem and is initially roasted by Rose for being dull and uneventful. She’s the perfect lead for this show: great voice, nuanced performance and brings the silly only when needed. Stagehands with Dubbo TAFE emblazoned on their shirts skulk in and out looking bored shitless; a comic stroke of genius.
But Dubbo comes to life on wrestling night. The chants are crude and loud. The outfits are outrageous and skimpy. Ken is determined to win at all costs. Meanwhile, a romance emerges between the ropes for Mr Multicultural and Rose. The natural choreography of the ring run, the faux throw down, the phoney lift up and the uppercut jab hook lends itself elegantly to an intimate dance routine. For a moment, you’re watching Dirty Dancing. Until the rough gravelled hollers of the tradie ladies or feral Cheryl transport us straight back to Dubbo again.
The laugh out loud moments come thick and fast in this utterly unique production, from the kinaesthetic, high energy caricature-like play fights of wrestling to the one-liners, a credit to choreographer Ellen Simpson, fight director Tim Dashwood and writer Daniel Cullen respectively. The wrestling bonanza airs in the early hours and opens with the tradie ladies screeching: “Good evening all you’se night owls and meth heads!” As for the group dancing numbers: I only wished they were longer.
Ella Butler’s set is glorious: a giant boxing ring, which opens up around the edges to hint at the close-knit suburbia of Dubbo, which worships cricket player Glenn McGrath as a demigod.
Rose breaks free from her mother’s shackles in a desperate attempt to get back to Sydney, but then has a change of heart after defeating Ken’s hilariously naff wrestling moves. “Come on,” feral Cheryl yells out to her daughter after her pantomime-like evil plot fails and she intends to return to Sydney. “We’re goin’ home.”
“I am home,” Rose shoots back, deciding Dubbo ain’t all that bad after all. It’s a fabulously non-didactic parable about learning to love your roots, even if they’ve long embarrassed, bored or shamed you.
How wonderful to see such inventive new writing on the stage, full of self-deprecating comedy, character and a distinctly Aussie flair. It’s the kind of quality that has become synonymous with the Hayes. Long may it continue.
Dubbo Championship Wrestling continues at the Hayes Theatre Co, Elizabeth Bay, until Saturday, 11 June, 2022. For tickets and further information, visit https://hayestheatre.com.au/event/dubbo-championship-wrestling-2/.
Gary Nunn is editor-at-large of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @garynunn1.