Blood, sweat, tears, thumbtacks, rollicking rock ballads, questionable costumes and a fully ocker vernacular – this show has it all. Dubbo Championship Wrestling (DCW) is absolutely over the top, and it’s just about the most bloody fun you can have on a night at the theatre.
Rose (Zoe Ioannou), a young woman who grew up in Dubbo with wrestling in her blood, has long ago turned her back on the family business and Dubbo’s stifling smalltown ways. When circumstances lead her back to her hometown on the eve of Dubbomaina, the biggest wrestling tournament of the year, Rose is drawn into a monumental smackdown over family and identity.
There are three things that can undo any musical: drawn-out songs that don't further the story, central romances with no palpable chemistry, and second acts where the action stalls and the audience gets bored. DCW powerfully gut punches all those potential pitfalls, pulls a cheesegrater out of nowhere, and goes back for seconds.
Each and every one of the performers on stage commits to their larger-than-life character with just the right amount of earnestness (including the on-stage rock band and the techie in the “Dubbo TAFE” T-shirt). I say “larger than life”, but if you’ve ever spent time with people who live outside the metropolitan centres, these “cashed-up bogans” don’t feel like too much of a reach.
Ellen Simpson’s (Little Shop of Horrors, Dream Lover) choreography and Tim Dashwood’s (Julius Caesar, Death of a Salesman) fight direction are pivotal to making this show work. Check out scenes where Rose and Ron (Luke Leong-Tay, Young Frankenstein) share the ring. Rose has an aversion to the sport that obsessed her father and tore her family apart, and Ron is a wrestling die-hard who reluctantly fills the problematic stage persona of “Mr Multicultural”. But their connection is undeniable, even when Rose is disguised as a man – and honestly, it’s kinda steamy.
There is not a weak link among the cast. Legend of stage and screen Genevieve Lemon is a salt-of-the-earth delight as Mickie, one half of the Tradie Ladies, a rough-and-tumble tag-team wrestling duo, alongside Noni McCallum (Come from Away) as Trish. Justin Smith, who broke out in the 1992 Australian production of Jesus Christ Superstar and the original Australian production of Rent in ’98, brings excellent characterisation and a beautiful tone to Ozzy the Aussie Battler. Aaron Tsindos (Muriel’s Wedding the Musical, Merrily We Roll Along) brings laugh-out-loud physicality to his performance as misguided, swaggering American pro wrestler Perfect Ten Ken, who honestly doesn’t realise the wrestling is staged. The accomplished Terry Serio is well cast as Rose’s father, Dubbo Championship Wrestling custodian and referee Des. Bishanyia Vincent (Bump) absolutely nails the role of Rose’s manipulative mum Cheryl, as well as the task of belting out songs with a hard Aussie twang.
With the offensively multi-talented and multi-award-winning Sheridan Harbridge (Songs for the Fallen) in the director’s chair, the whole thing is in safe hands. Harbridge is fresh from directing the brilliantly horny and unhinged 44 Sex Acts in One Week for Sydney Festival, and you might know her from originating the role of Tessa in hard-hitting one-woman play Prima Facie, which just made a celebrated Broadway debut.
You don’t need to have a very intimate knowledge of wrestling, Dubbo or cricket to enjoy this show. But if you do, there are some jokes you’ll get an extra kick out of. And if not, you might learn something new – while Dubbo’s televised underground wrestling scene is a fiction, the Dubbo vs Orange rivalry is most definitely not. And you bet your bottom dollar that the prodigal son of Aussie cricket, Glen McGrath, is Dubbo born and bred (and he was in the audience on opening night).
There is nothing particularly original about the story – a disgruntled teenager from a broken family reluctantly landing back in her hometown; a beloved but unsustainable community club on the brink of financial collapse – but the secret sauce is in the delivery. You’d think we’d be done with Aussie musicals set in small towns with strong ‘straylian accents, with Virginia Gay’s The Boomkak Panto blowing our Christmas stockings off at the end of 2021 and the adorable The Deb currently treading the boards at ATYP. But there’s something especially joyous about this one. DCW doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it also never steps too recklessly over the line. The show’s writers, brothers Daniel Cullen and James Cullen, are Dubbo raised, and knowingness sweats through every pore, every touchstone, and the full use of our filthy national lingo. This is a story about coming back to things you used to love or thought you’d outgrown, and the Cullens have captured that particular brand of sentimentality with warmth.
With Ella Butler’s (First Love is the Revolution) set design centering all the action around a boxing ring, the action manages not to feel stuck in one place. Lightning designer Trent Suidgeest (Muriel’s Wedding the Musical, Calamity Jane) creates dynamic floods of colour and flashiness that transport the audience into the smackdown fantasy.
DCW is a love letter to the explosive ’80s, the flip-phone flirty early aughts, the big heart of country town Australiana, and the absolute ridiculousness and showmanship of professional wrestling. Whatever you do, just don’t throw around the f-word – “fake”.
Side note: the merch for this show also packs a punch – just try to leave without a commemorative stubbie holder or tea towel.
Dubbo Championship Wrestling plays at the Hayes Theatre, Potts Point until June 11, before transferring to Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, from June 16-25.