On the Ropes at Park Theatre review: a story worth telling, but no knockout

 (Steve Gregson)
(Steve Gregson)

British boxer Vernon Vanriel’s descent from sporting highs in the 70s and 80s to being left homeless in Jamaica by UK Immigration’s “hostile environment” in the 2000s is a harsh and compelling story. It’s rigorously explored to the point of ponderousness in this play co-written by Vanriel and Dougie Blaxland and studded with reggae and pop numbers.

The three-strong cast performed heroically despite illness in the preview I saw on Monday. But the stylistic flourishes of Anastasia Osei-Kuffour’s production – staged, naturally, in a boxing ring with the surrounding audience encouraged to hoot and cheer - frequently impede rather than illuminate the action.

Vanriel, raised in Tottenham from the age of six, rose to become the no 2 lightweight fighter in the UK and no 14 in Europe, his dancing style and pioneering adoption of showy robes and entrance music earning him the soubriquet “The Entertainer”. But he was prevented from becoming champion by the cartel that controlled boxing, after speaking out about racism in the sport.

Or so this show suggests. It paints Vanriel initially as a folk hero, devoted to his sister and girlfriend and generous to his fans, although it doesn’t sugar-coat him. Shut out of contests, sectioned for bipolar disorder and then zonked on crack, he lost everything. Including his leave to remain in Britain after he overstayed on a visit to Jamaica to see a son accidentally conceived on a previous visit.

 (Steve Gregson)
(Steve Gregson)

During 13 years of effective statelessness he slept rough in a church and a chicken coop, was unable to access the heart medicine he needed, and escaped murder by Jamaican cops. As an illustration of the Orwellian callousness of previous (and current) UK governments it’s timely and shocking. However, there’s a mawkish relentlessness to the way each new degradation that the martyred and tear-stained Vanriel faces is worked through. I guess it can’t be easy to suggest edits when the subject of your play is also the co-writer and can deliver a mean uppercut.

Lolloping internal rhymes in the script echo Vanriel’s nimbleness in the ring and on the dancefloor and the songs are well sung although they are clumsily shoehorned into the text and add little. Mensah Bediako is fit enough to suggest the young fighter, mature enough to convince as the broken-down 2022 version, and he is well supported by Ashley D Gayle and the impressively chameleonic Amber James.

But the supporting characters they play are caricatures: malevolently wicked and racist promoters, blokey trainers, eye-rolling girlfriends, clucking relatives. Worse is the clumsy underlining in Osei-Kuffour’s production. Zahra Mansouri’s set splits into spinning quarters, a metaphor for precariousness, but it quite literally gets in the cast’s way. Vanriel’s mental instability is flagged by what sounds like boiling lava, each new psychological blow by an echoing bass note from the sound desk. Above all, it lacks pace. This remains a story worth telling and hearing, but as a piece of theatre it’s no knockout.

Park Theatre, to 4 Feb;