story worth telling but no knockout

    (Steve Gregson)

(Steve Gregson)

It is a grim and compelling story when British boxer Vernon Vanriel was left homeless in Jamaica by the “hostile environment” of the UK Immigration Service in the 2000s, from the peak of his sport in the 70s and 80s. This is meticulously explored to the point of sobriety in this play co-written by Vanriel and Dougie Blaxland and adorned with reggae and pop songs.

In the preview I watched on Monday, the three-man cast gave a heroic performance despite the illness. But the stylistic showdowns in Anastasia Osei-Kuffour’s production – naturally staged in a boxing ring where the surrounding audience is encouraged to boo and cheer – often hinder rather than brighten the action.

Growing up at Tottenham from the age of six, Vanriel rose to become the #2 UK lightweight and #14 European lightweight fighter. His embrace of his dance style and flamboyant robes and intro music earned him the nickname “The Entertainer”. But after talking about racism in the sport, he was blocked from becoming a champion by the cartel that controls boxing.

Or as this show suggests. It initially portrays Vanriel as a folk hero, devoted to his sister and girlfriend, and generous to his fans, even though he doesn’t sugarcoat it. He was excluded from competitions, split up due to bipolar disorder and then split to crack, losing everything. Including permission to stay in Britain after being too long on a previous visit to Jamaica to accidentally see that a son had been conceived.

    (Steve Gregson)

(Steve Gregson)

During his 13-year de facto statelessness, he barely slept in a church and a chicken coop, couldn’t get the heart medicine he needed, and avoided being killed by Jamaican cops. It is timely and shocking, as an example of the Orwellian insensitivity of previous (and current) UK governments. However, there is a sullen ruthlessness in the way the martyred and tear-stained Vanriel is overcome with each new humiliation he encounters. Suggesting edits can’t be easy, I guess, when the subject of your play is also a co-author and can make an average uppercut.

The inner rhymes in the script reflect Vanriel’s agility in the ring and on the dance floor, and the songs are sung well, though clumsily drawn to the text with little added. Mensah Bediako is mature enough to entice the young fighter, fit enough to suggest it as the corrupted 2022 version, and well supported by Ashley D Gayle and the impressively chameleon-like Amber James.

But the supporting characters they play are just cartoons: malicious and racist promoters, dude trainers, girlfriends rolling their eyes, relatives cackling. Worse still, the clumsy accents in Osei-Kuffour’s production. Zahra Mansouri’s set is divided into swirling pods as a metaphor for instability, but it literally gets in the way of the cast. Vanriel’s mental instability is marked by each new psychological blow, with sounds like boiling lava, a bass note echoing off the soundboard. First of all, it has no pace. It remains a story worth telling and hearing, but as a theatrical piece it is not a knockout.

Park Theatre, to February 4;

Leave a Comment