Theatre Review - On The Ropes

VERNON Vanriel and Dougie Blaxland’s On the Ropes is a play of two halves. In the first we learn of the rise and fall of the British lightweight boxer (Mensah Bediako), nicknamed “The Entertainer”, his refusal to be bullied by promoters and fall from grace.

In part two, we follow Vanriel’s time in Jamaica and his monumental battle to return to England, confronted by the government’s “hostile environment” and a victim of the Windrush scandal.

Jamaican-born, Vanriel grew up in Tottenham and reached his boxing peak in the early 1980s. He refused to toe the line and after speaking up about racism in the sport found himself ostracised. Denied the opportunity to box, he turned to drugs, while his marriage fell apart. This exacerbated his bi-polar condition and he was sectioned twice.

When a former girlfriend contacted him to say she had given birth to his child, Vanriel sought solace in Jamaica. Initially, he worked as a coach, but then his relationship fell apart. When he tried to return to Britain, he was denied entry. His health deteriorated and he became destitute.

In Anastasia Osei-Koffler’s energetic production, Zahra Mansouri’s boxing ring takes centre stage and Vanriel’s life is separated into 12 rounds. Ashley D Gayle and Amber James (sensational) perform several roles from family members to immigration officials.

It would benefit from having some minutes shaved off, but On the Ropes combines sport and politics to great effect and the choice of music from the time, sung by the talented three-strong cast, is inspired.

Until February 4

Originally publihsed by Islington Tribune.