On The Ropes ★★★★ Park Theatre | Jan 7 - Feb 4, 2023

On The Ropes chronicles the life of Vernon Vanriel, a British boxer whose boxing career took off in the late 70s and early 80s. The show is a no-holds-barred exposé of his professional and personal life, unflinchingly revealing both its highs and its lows. While the piece is divided into twelve rounds, it really seems to deal with two different bouts. In the first, Vanriel achieves considerable success in the ring, but he ultimately succumbs to his struggles with a corrupt boxing establishment and his own demons. In the second fight, he squares off with the bureaucracy of the Home Office to establish his right to live in Britain. He eventually triumphs in that struggle and becomes emblematic of the abuses perpetrated on the Windrush generation. In telling the boxer's story, the challenge for writers, Vanriel and Dougie Blaxland, is to establish the relationship between these two battles, but unfortunately it feels as if one story is dropped when the other is picked up. The only continuity is Vanriel's fighting spirit, but the history of personal development is lost as the political drama takes over. It almost seems as if we are watching two different plays. However, all of the cast are excellent, and Mensah Bediako does a fine job of channeling Vanriel. He successfully bobs, weaves and dances his way into the audience's heart. Ashley D Gayle, as one half of the Chorus, also does a great job as he takes on a variety of roles in the drama. However, it is his counterpart, Amber James, who delivers the standout performance of the evening. She demonstrates an astounding ability to establish different characters in the blinking of an eye and her singing was a highpoint for us. Indeed, the musical selection works well to underline Vanriel's story and Zahra Mansouri's boxing ring set is used to great effect. Ultimately, this is a production worthy of a boxer known as "The Entertainer."

Rated: ★★★★

Reviewed by J.C.
Photo by Steve Gregson.

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