The sports biography is a great focus for drama and at the Park Theatre the focus is on boxing legend Vernon Vanriel who is telling his own story in the world premiere of On the Ropes, a play he has co-written with Dougie Blaxland. A tale of sporting prowess, celebrity self-destruction and eventually national betrayal, Vanriel and Blaxland’s overlong story doesn’t pull many punches, presenting the good, bad and the alarming misdirections of Vanriel’s event-filled life. It is a play that occasionally explores the context and consequences of Black British identity, the incipient racism and the incumbent police brutality that follows, although On the Ropes could take a clearer perspective on how the protagonist’s life is shaped by these external forces.
Vanriel’s story is undoubtedly an interesting one, beginning with scholastic under-achievement and concluding with a Windrush-related rejection despite having grown-up in Britain. In between is a lengthy intermediary chapter in which Vanriel becomes both the No 2-rated British boxer and, as the play argues, an innovator who introduced both walk-on music and cheap tickets to boxing matches that allowed more people like Vernon to see his fights, rapidly democratising access to sport. There are though a lot of notes like this wrapped into the play’s long biographical structure that takes a strictly chronological approach to presenting the episodes of Vanriel’s life without pausing for long enough to really tot up or properly analyse those decisive contributions. The political disaster of Vernon’s struggle for recognition pre-dates the Windrush scandal but the play never asks why this is so decisive in shaping his eventual identity which is only ever alluded to and not fully excavated.
On the Ropes uses the architecture of a boxing match, a 12 Round drama with chapters of indeterminate length that stages 6 of these rounds in each half of the play. It is a reasonable device given the subject matter and one that focuses the many fights and experiences of Vanriel’s life as the boxer’s rise and fall gives way to a prolonged exile in Jamaica and the sportsman’s well-documented fight to return to the UK and then on to the citizenship that should have been his right from the age of 6. The Round structure though has a significant downside, becoming a way to mark time for the audience, knowing for better or worse that the story cannot end before all 12 bouts are played out.
It is a concept that becomes problematic when the chapters are of such unequal length, reaching only 6 of these after a 90-minute first Act that makes the tempo feel slow despite Vernon’s incident-packed life, much of it interesting of itself. Yet, the show overshoots its advertised running time by nearly 40-minutes taking a 2 hour and 20 minute biography to nearly 3 hours of stage time, all paced against the slowly ticking 12 Round clock that makes narrative drive and momentum hard to sustain.
The difficulty is that On the Ropes is packed with conversations and encounters, covering a varied and engaging life that becomes perhaps even more compelling once Vanriel and Blaxland move into political territory and the questions of citizenship that focus Act Two. There is perhaps too much to say and more than one play lurking within this story meaning these strands ultimately struggle against one another, both competing for notice and to be labelled the most important or decisive periods of Vanriel’s life. What On the Ropes could do is decide which of its many stories it wants to tell and which version of Vernon Vanriel it wants the audience to see.
Is this the story of damaged celebrity, a boxing star thrust too soon into the limelight with little self-care or protection who, like so many others, burned brightly for a time before the inevitability of self-destruction burned him out with drugs and plaguing mental health that led to doubt and depression, or is this the story of a man betrayed by his nation after a lifetime of service, when bureaucracy and bigoted Government decision-making left him destitute in a place far from home? On the Ropes tries to be both but can’t entirely excel at either while the stories and length of this play compete to exhaust an audience nonetheless eager to hear the life of this fascinating man who enjoyed the highest highs and lowest lows of British society.
There is some gripping stuff in here which the overly episodic and completest nature of the biographical drama cannot entirely satisfy in the way that a publication perhaps could. A lightly sketched childhood would be sufficient for the stage and instead Vanriel and Blaxland’s drama should launch immediately into Vernon’s boxing career – perhaps even with a foreshadowing scene of the exile to come that will give purpose and direction to the drama. The first Act is where the excitement of the ring should live along with the increasing scale of the arenas, and thereby the stakes, then contrasted with Vernon’s too hasty fall from grace, where drugs and a growing arrogance make the character of Vernon overconfident and careless.
The very best moments of the existing Act One are those intense boxing encounters presented against a range of invisible opponents and accompanied by a running commentary describing the action into microphones. Here the plays comes alive with fight sequences that are served by their very theatricality on stage and the energy the descriptions bring. The thrust and parry, the choreographed dance of feet, the battle between lone individuals all come across well in On the Ropes as Vanriel’s rise and rise plays out nicely against a backdrop of conflicted management, Vernon’s demands and confidence as his success expands, while the scale of his talent takes him to the heart of the Establishment with a match at the Royal Albert Hall.
Vanriel and Blaxland also handle Vernon’s decline with skill, the personal frustrations that lead to substance abuse and the breakup of his family while also robbing him of the savvy management skills that consumed his earnings and left him with little to show for his years on top when the bailiffs come knocking. The notions of self-destruction, of fighting demons that destroy Vernon’s mental health taking him further from the man he was and wants to be are baked into the play but this needs to be the driving arc of Act One, a trajectory relieved of its fatty excesses, trimmed and given the necessary musculature to fight for Vernon’s central story in which the character is taken through and beyond fame. Losing some of the secondary roles to create a leaner, more focused first Act lasting around 60-minutes would make Vanriel’s story all the more powerful, leaving the character in a position to enter Act Two having experienced personal betrayal and ready to confront the State’s attack on his liberty after the interval. Most importantly, it would transform On the Ropes from an episodic and densely written narrative into a dramatically realised one.
Act Two could then concentrate, as it does now, on Vernon’s battle with the British Government to recognise his status as a citizen and the underhand tricks employed to keep him in Jamaica by callous British policymakers. Most of this is already in place but it also needs a slight trim. It may have taken 13 years, many trips to the visa service and many family calls to get to the bottom of these issues but it adds minimally to the drama to see all of them. Tidying up some of the more repetitious scenes would help the flow and pacing of the play. Compression may not be strictly accurate but the audience need only see an indication to get the gist while acknowledging the personal pain in this faceless attack on his humanity
Navigating these failures and the private toll it took on Vernon unable to live or work in Jamaica is already well-handled while the transition from The Guardian interview to the High Court battle for eventual justice makes for a compelling and neatly written conclusion in which the audience sees both Vernon’s failings – about which this play is remarkably clear-sighted and honest – and the circumstances where he was failed by whole systems pitted against him. A moving end to the play is well developed and the writers have created a character in which the audience can invest and empathise. Overly detailed it may be, but there is no denying the extraordinary life of Vernon Vanriel and the courage he has shown by staying in the fight to the bitter end.
Directed by Anastasia Osei-Kuffour, this production, which has its Press Night imminently, has endured an interrupted rehearsal period due to illness and won’t have the chance to address the text ahead of its opening night. But there is the glimmer of some really interesting approaches to staging, using a cast of just three actors playing tens of people across Vernon’s lifetime as well as performing the numerous reggae and ska songs that have been inserted at appropriate moments in jukebox musical style, capturing the flavour of British-Caribbean culture and the atmosphere of Vanriel’s time in both countries.
Osie-Kuffour stages the play in a boxing ring giving the in-the-round audience a view of the biography from all angles with even the non-boxing scenes played inside the structure, at least until Vanriel’s life starts to come apart. Designed by Zahra Mansouri there is a nod to the boxer’s destiny in this staging, the inevitability of his career and the ways in which it shaped his life, as well as the obvious allusion to the endless fights he would embark upon. But it becomes a little cumbersome, especially in Act One as it keeps the audience at bay. The fluidity of this story, of the movement between the personal and the professional begs for something simpler and perhaps a more representative set might help to better create the multiple spaces that Vanriel’s life requires. Like the text, the set could imply more than it needs to show, perhaps offering only half of the boxing ring or the four corners without the ropes that impede the actors’ movements.
The concept comes into its own in the more consistent narrative of Act Two as Vanriel’s life comes apart so too does Mansouri’s structure which is broken up and revolved, creating different spaces in which the characters can interact as connections to the protagonist’s former self become fractured. Mensah Bediako captures all of those changes in Vernon, a character he plays from the age of 6 through to his 60s, using his physicality to imply the force of the boxer during his prime as well as the toll of Vernon’s later years as homelessness and hopelessness eat away at him. Other roles are performed with verve by Amber James and Ashley D. Gayle who carry the energy of the production, transforming into boxing commentators, relatives, friends and officials while giving fine voice to all those great songs.
On the Ropes really does have a remarkable story (or several remarkable stories) to tell but it needs bringing into the light, helping the audience to understand why this is a stage show instead of a written biography. Vanriel’s tale of suffering, survival and showbiz needs an ending, not just a slightly sentimental rendition of (Something Inside) So Strong but an analysis of what all of this has meant. There is much more to say on the play’s central themes, the effects of continual harassment from the police and others as well as Vanriel’s final reflections on what Black British identity means to him now and whether his sense of nationhood has been forever tarnished by his experiences. Yes he eventually won every fight for his freedom, but was it all worth it?