NOTE: The following review dates from July 2005 and this production's earlier run at Hull.
As both author and director John Godber certainly knows how to get the maximum response from his loyal audience at the intimate Hull Truck Theatre. His touch doesn’t fail him with Wrestling Mad, but I am far from agreeing with those first-nighters who thought this one of his best plays.
Jeff and Jack are two failing actors, giving Godber an excuse for a brief sample of a Dracula musical and the first of the evening’s silly costumes. Despite their many degrees and a tendency to pitch such names as Erwin Piscator into everyday conversation, they live in abject squalor and Jack smells. Their lives are not a success, girls are not attracted to them and they have no money. So, despite a lack of ability, fitness and aggression, they decide to take up professional wrestling, gaining £100 bookings with remarkable ease. What does the future hold for Jeff and Jack? Grappling glory or a return to the schools version of Dracula?
There are some good gags (and plenty of recycled ones), much repetitive dialogue and one inspired twist. Jack, jaundiced about his unused doctorate and the low academic aspirations of the wrestling crowd, launches into a diatribe against popular culture in his ring character of The Doctor and becomes an instant hit as the bad guy, the Hull Truck audience reacting manfully with resounding boos. Some of his speeches about the importance of art left me uncertain how seriously to respond: if we are to attack wrestling promoters for giving people what they want, where does that leave Wrestling Mad – or is this the post-modern irony of the whole escapade?
It’s difficult to see Jeff and Jack as characters. Much of their dialogue is expository and their behaviour lacks consistency beyond an understandable desire to avoid working as supply teachers. However, Matthew Booth and Jack Brady negotiate the various twists capably and amiably, while Kate Baines sings pleasantly in the under-used role of Jeff’s on-off girlfriend and delivers sets of ferocious clichés as a Gladiator-style wrestler. The most dynamic performance (in four different parts) comes from Amy Thompson, (an impressive late replacement for Sarah Baxendale) whose feisty Liverpudlian wrestling promoter is the liveliest character on stage.
I am reluctant to criticise a play that aims to be an “entertainment”, not a drama, and succeeds triumphantly in entertaining most of the audience - but I didn’t get beyond the odd chuckle. Even John Boddy’s “hilarious” costume designs left me pretty cold.