Scheduled over twelve rounds, On the Ropes at the Park Theatre goes from 7.30 to around 10pm in a protracted telling of Vernon Vanriel’s life story. It’s hard not to keep looking at he illuminated sign to see just how many rounds (scenes) are left before the event can be wrapped up.
A protracted telling of Vernon Vanriel’s life story
On paper, Vanriel’s life story is gripping, but this stage adaptation is wide of the mark in its failure to focus on the most important and universal aspects of what happened to him. Perhaps because Vanriel co-wrote it with sporting playwright Dougie Blaxland the piece has ended up as a chronological narrative that seems anxious to leave nothing out. Interspersed between the numerous boxing matches, domestic events and dealings with promoters is a top twenty (I lost count) of blues and reggae songs spanning his life. Fans of those genres, and many who grew up at the same time as Vanrie, clearly relished this aspect of the play; some joined in, clapped or gyrated in their seats.
Vanriel came to Britain aged six with his family as part of the Windrush Generation. Despite early protestations from his mother he found fulfilment at the local boxing gym and went on to become one of the UK’s most charismatic and influential black British boxers of the 70s and 80s. He had everything going for him until in 2005, having lived in North London for 43 years, he made a return trip to Jamaica. He stayed there for just over two years. without realising that the time span was in violation of the terms of his ‘indefinite leave to remain’ in the UK. He was now trapped. Drugs took over his life. He became destitute, with nowhere to live, no money and no access to the medical care he need for his heart condition.
We don’t arrive at this tragic and appalling part of the story until we are into Act II, when Vanriel faces the biggest fight of his life. He spends thirteen years battling against the UK government and its impossible bureaucracy. It’s not until a powerfully emotional speech by local MP David Lammy that his case comes to public attention and the Home Office begins to recognise the impossibility of his position and that of many others. Then, in December 2021 he wins a historic High Court victory over the British Government when Mr Justice Bourne rules that the Home Office had acted illegally in denying his right to British Citizenship.
The sense of despair in telling this part of the story is palpable. Mensah Bediako, though looking outside the weight category for Vanriel, has a boxer's build and vividly illustrates the the dramatic changes that overcame the boxer at the height of his career and the man ultimately being reduced to a physical and emotional wreck. All other characters are played by Amber James and Ashley D Gayle who convincingly become, family members, boxing promoters, judges and officials, ducking and diving there way in and out of the boxing ring set. Zahra Mansouri’s design is predictable for a play such as this and a performance in the round. That it symbolically splits into four sections as Vanriel’s life is torn apart is a clever idea but one that in practice makes for some unwieldy manouevrings. Nevertheless Anastasia Osei-Kuffour’s direction is imaginative and does all it can to instil pace, energy and excitement into the text.
On the Ropes has the potential to be reworked as a far punchier, abbreviated drama, that remains rooted in Vanriel’s life but more fully explores the issues that dominated the years following his demise as a boxer.