Going home can feel like jumping into the ring: all defensive stance and fists up, ready to fight the ghosts of the past to preserve the person you have become. In Dubbo Championship Wrestling, this feeling is all too real for Rose, the unhappy heir to her father Des’s cheesy, low-budget, late-night wrestling event.
This Hayes Theatre Company musical begins in a flashback to 1985, where Des (Terry Serio) and wife Cheryl (Bishanyia Vincent) are the reigning king and queen of the ring, Cheryl proudly showing off her baby bump. We then rocket forward to 2003: baby Rose (Zoe Ioannou, in a roaring performance) is now an angry teen, having left Dubbo with her mother to live in Sydney for the last 10 years.
Rose looks down on her home town but after having suplexed her PE teacher in a fit of pique, she’s back in Dubbo with her mum for her probation. While they’re there, Cheryl wants to take down DCW, Des, and the town that stole the “best years of [her] life” – that is, if Dubbo’s bucolic charm and her father’s world of sequins and knee pads doesn’t win Rose over first.
Don’t expect these motivations to be so easily spelled out onstage, however. The book of this musical, by first-time writer Daniel Cullen, has a tendency to hurry over establishing motivations and character arcs in favour of choreographed wrestling setpieces (lovingly written and handled) and an extensive catalogue of bogan-poking jokes (some are fantastic).
It’s a shame that the balance is off, because it affects the overall tone: jokes land a little meaner than they should, and the second act, which needs to chart some real changes of heart, doesn’t quite land.
Cullen, who also wrote the music with his brother James, could have lifted a trick from wrestling: focusing tightly on the face (hero) and heel (villain) of the story. The face here is Rose: it’s her personal growth and eventual save-the-town triumph we’re rooting for. But we learn about her past so late in the show that, for much of it, she and we are floundering without a foundation.
And then there’s the heel: Cheryl. It’s near impossible to take your eyes off Vincent as she reveals her manipulative depths and stop-at-nothing attitude to destroy the local wrestling scene, ominous evil laughter and all. But because we learn so late in the show, again, what happened when she left Dubbo, we don’t know whether to root for Cheryl or just delight in her campy villainy.
The real emotional centre of Dubbo Championship Wrestling is the family patriarch, Des. We hear a lot about his wrestling dreams, and we watch him try to keep them alive. He’s a fully rounded character who is awarded both jokes and critical dignity. But all this development for Des – and not his daughter and ex-wife – throws off the whole show, which turns on Rose and Cheryl’s actions.
Still, some moments soar. The show’s director, Sheridan Harbridge (one of the sharpest comic minds in Australian musical theatre) puts the laughs first in a show that needs its audience to cackle to keep it afloat. The action all takes place inside Ella Butler’s wrestling-ring set, which adds a fresh dynamism.
And of course a show about wrestling needs some smackdowns. The show’s choreographer, Ellen Simpson, and its fight director, Tim Dashwood, have created broad, bold shapes that are, in key moments, genuinely surprising. Even the most hard-hearted will find it difficult not to clap when Rose and Dubbo local Ron (Luke Leong-Tay, lovely as a romantic lead) fall for each other in the ring.
While Ron’s wrestling story is the most interesting – he’s tired of being cast in the outdated wrestling world role of “villainous foreigner” – it’s Aaron Tsindos as Ken, a peacocking American who believes wrestling is all real, who all but walks away with the show with his oversized ego and lovable stupidity. Mickie (Genevieve Lemon) and Trish (Noni McCallum) are fantastic comic relief as the “tradie ladies” wrestling duo.
Then there’s the music. The Cullens have written a tribute to Oz Rock, largely 80s-inflected pub sounds filtered through musical theatre melodies, which sounds full and assured played by the show’s small band under the direction and supervision of Glenn Moorhouse and Joe Accaria, who co-arranged the numbers.
Dubbo Championship Wrestling would benefit from thoughtful revisions and character-focused dramaturgy if it is to have a longer and better life. But its strongest numbers make it a show with exciting potential.
Dubbo Championship Wrestling is on at Hayes Theatre Company, NSW, now.