On the Ropes (Park Theatre)

Posted: January 11, 2023 in Theatre

Photo: Steve Gregson

Writers: Vernon Vanriel and Dougie Blaxland

Director: Anastasia Osei-Kuffour

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Park 200 Theatre, named to reflect its seating capacity, is expanded to accommodate many more than that number for the World Premiere of On the Ropes. Zahra Mansouri’s design transforms the space to resemble a compact sports arena, with spectators sitting on all four sides of a Boxing ring. Actors and audience are both, almost literally, on the ropes.

The play, in part a musical, is autobiographical, written by its subject, Vernon Vanriel, in collaboration with Dougie Blaxland. The story is told in 12 “rounds” and the ring becomes a metaphor for a life full of challenges and confrontations, victories and defeats. Vernon had arrived in the United Kingdom from Jamaica, aged six, as part of the Windrush generation, settling in Tottenham. He fails academically, but drifts into the Boxing world, where he thrives.

The story traces Vernon’s career through the 1970s and 80s from turning professional in small clubs to topping the bill at the Royal Albert Hall. He acquires the nickname “The Entertainer”, due to his insistence on putting on a show for his followers and takes on Boxing’s establishment to secure fair ticket pricing for his bouts. After retirement, new opponents emerge for him, combatting mental illness, Cocaine addiction and a serious heart condition. All this and his biggest fight is still to come.

There is a lot packed into a crowded first half, perhaps too much for a single drama, but director Anastasia Osei-Kuffour’s high energy production dances as if to the beat of a Reggae tune, its relentless pace  leaving little time for reflection. It is buoyed by three superb performances, the trio being on stage continuously throughout: Mensah Bediako, ageing some 50 years, is a commanding figure as Vernon, with Ashley D Gayle and and Amber James playing all the key people in his life.

The dialogue, some of it in rhyming verse, is crisp and the drama reflects Vernon’s passion for music by incorporating several classic songs of black origin – some Soul and Gospel in style, but primarily Reggae. Yes these musical interludes impede the flow of the storytelling, but the quality of the performances negates any cause for complaint.

In later life, Vernon returns to Jamaica to visit his new-born sone and finds himself barred from re-entering the United Kingdom. He is caught up in the scandal of the Home Office’s treatment of Windrush generation immigrants. Stranded and suffering many years of extreme poverty and degradation, he is sustained only by the in-born spirit of a fighter. This part of the story is depicted powerfully, but it make up a more sombre second act in which much of the production’s earlier rhythm is lost and the drama begins to feel slightly overlong.

On the Ropes tells an important true story and wraps it in a parcel of rich entertainment. Maybe the show is not entirely a knockout, but it certainly packs a heavy punch.

Performance date: 10 January 2023

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