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Review: ON THE ROPES, Park Theatre

Review: ON THE ROPES, Park Theatre

An expansive, ambitious production with a real life story at its core.

On The RopesOn the Ropes is a play about fighting - in more ways than one. In the first act, it's about fighting in a very literal sense, tracking the boxing career of Vernon Vanriel. After the interval, however, Vanriel faces a new opponent: the Home Office's new Windrush legislation. Combining a story that spans over fifty years with live singing and choreography, this is an expansive, ambitious production with a real life story at its core.

We've seen a lot of biographical shows in recent years, but primarily in the world of commercial musical theatre - from Tina to Evita and even the recent Almeida premiere of Tammy Faye, it's a proven formula, if a sometimes controversial one. On the Ropes almost belongs in this category, but not quite.

The show tracks Vanriel's life chronologically, follows a two-act structure, and has its fair share of musical numbers. It's miles away, however, from the form of a traditional musical. This story is told mostly in verse, is divided into twelve 'rounds', and has a cast of only three, with two actors extensively multi-rolling.

In many ways the first and second acts feel like two different shows. Act 1 has a lot going on, spanning Vanriel's whole boxing career in London across several decades as well as dealing with his bipolar disorder, addiction problems, and run-ins with racist police officers. It's fairly light in tone, with many musical numbers and some strong comedic beats, but the stakes don't feel very high: Vanriel faces challenges, but the plot suffers from a lack of drive.

In the second half, however, the action moves to Jamaica, where Vanriel, unable to get back to the UK due to the Windrush laws, finds himself homeless with his health in serious danger. Suddenly, the stakes couldn't be higher. The musical numbers are still there, but the tone is much darker and the plot focuses on the impossibility of the visa rules that repeatedly keep Vanriel away from his family. The result of this is a show that feels unevenly paced, causing what should be the most emotional moments to lose some of their impact.

On the Ropes' main difficulty is that it just tries to cover too much. There's enough material here for a full written biography, but that doesn't always translate well to the stage. A much shorter show that really gets to the heart of the themes of mental health, addiction, and masculinity would pack more of a punch - pun not intended. At present, the show risks feeling like a Wikipedia page, rather than the hard-hitting drama it has the potential to be.

The form also sometimes limits the show's storytelling potential. Co-written by Dougie Blaxland and Vanriel himself, much of On the Ropes is told in verse - more specifically, in rhyming couplets. While this is sometimes effective, and offers some fun comedy beats, it often takes pathos away from the story, and feels out of place with the darker subject matter, occasionally feeling too similar to pantomime style. In fact, the show is often tonally a little confusing - its sparky, energetic buzz, caricature-like supporting characters, and pulsing musical numbers at times feel at odds with the themes of racism and discrimination.

Some of the show's strongest moments are when it really leans into the parallels between boxing as performance - Vanriel was nicknamed 'The Entertainer' - and theatre. In several of the boxing matches in the play the audience are encouraged to cheer for the two opponents as though a real fight were taking place. There are also Union Jacks and Jamaican flags attached to some seats for audience members to wave. Director Anastasia Osei-Kuffour and Choreographer Gabi Nimo bring a frenetic energy to the piece, sending the cast of three quite literally bouncing around the space, interacting with the audience and climbing about the boxing ring set.

Zahra Mansouri's set, while predictable, is used well - it allows a boundary to be created between action and narration, and in the second act is pulled apart just as Vanriel is pulled away from his family. At times some of the uses of the ring feel a little arbitrary, and the concept could be sharpened, but it's a strong idea.

All three cast members face a real challenge - the two chorus members, Amber James and Ashley D Gayle, play a huge number of parts each, as well as singing and dancing throughout, while Mensah Bediako as Vanriel portrays the boxer from age thirteen to the present day. James gives a standout performance, with a sweet, soulful voice and great comedic timing, but all three bring boundless energy to the whole two hours. This is all the more impressive given that Artistic Director Jez Bond announced at the start that the cast had all been ill for most of the rehearsal process, often having to move onto Zoom.

There's too much going on in On the Ropes, both in terms of the story and how its told. But it's really very meaningful that Vanriel's story of being silenced and ignored for years on end, has now found its way to the stage. Finally, people are listening to him... and what a story he has to tell.

On the Ropes is at Park Theatre until 4 February

Photo Credit: Steve Gregson

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