This is an inspirational story in the end, but one which works through national pride, government inertia, political plotting, and the Kafkaesque issues facing the Windrush generation.
Vernon Vanriel came to Tottenham, London, at the age of six with his family. Educated and employed here, he shows promise as a boxer – hence the title On The Ropes – at one time ranking 2 in the lightweight tables with the moniker ‘The Entertainer’.
Over a 12 round structure, Vanriel’s story is told through Mensah Bediako’s absorbing performance across a fifty year timeline.
Completing the three-person cast are the “Chorus” (a dynamic duo of Amber James and Ashley D Gayle) who play every other figure in his life.
Written by Vanriel and Dougie Blaxland, and directed by Anastasia Osei-Kuffour, On The Ropes works as biopic, social history, and musical. The choice of songs, largely reggae but also soul numbers, fits seamlessly into the narrative.
The audience is placed on all four sides of a boxing ring, which becomes ripped apart by the end of Act One, by which time Vanriel’s boxing career has stalled, and he finds himself hobbled by addiction.
In Act Two, which deals with his life trapped in Jamaica, red tape, and poverty, the ring has been ripped apart to offer floor space to tell the tale of 13 years of statelessness forced upon an ailing man.
At 2 hours it might feel as if the story is drawn out somewhat, but there is a lot to get through from the teenager with some skill and “a massive ego” to the broken man falling into the arms of his sisters in the arrivals lounge at Gatwick.
All the performers are gifted at getting audience reactions through encouraging, flirting, or connecting through music (each song is performed with flair).
With so many characters surrounding Vanriel through his life, it is a tribute to their acting that you can follow who’s who with ease.
Whether a young girl, a tough boxing promoter, a racist policeman, or a bored bureaucrat, slight changes in voice and characteristics bring them to life.
On The Ropes is innovative, frustrating, emotional, and celebratory. In all, an interesting night out.
You can see On The Ropes at the Park Theatre until 4 Feb. Tickets here.
Image credit: Steve Gregson