There is a moment in ‘On the Ropes’ where boxer Vernon Vanriel (Mensah Bediako) stands in the ring, draped in the British flag. This is his life story. He’s a Londoner, he’s a family man and he is proud. It is a glorious image that makes the British government’s later refusal of his right to UK citizenship all the more viscerally horrific.
Written by playwright Dougie Blaxland in collaboration with the real Vanriel, ‘On the Ropes’ is a play of two halves. First, Vanriel battles to become the British boxing number two, before losing all his success to drugs and alcohol. Then, in the even darker second act, we watch as the life he knows in London is completely destroyed by the Home Office. For 13 years, Vanriel is stuck in Jamaica, living on the streets with no access to healthcare, and no option to return to the only home he knew, having come to the UK aged six as part of the Windrush Generation.
It is a modern tragedy. But it is not unexpected. Blaxland makes sure to layer the earlier part of the script with nods to Vanriel’s future. ‘You won’t find someone more British than me,’ he declares. He speaks fondly of his life as the ‘Titan of Tottenham’. He even calls Jamaica a ‘foreign country.’ From the start, it is clear that the UK is his home.
It is an unquestionably powerful drama, not least because it’s true. But stuffing someone’s whole life into two-and-a-half hours doesn’t always work. There is not enough scope to get to know the secondary characters in Vanriel’s life with enough detail or heart. The script often feels like it’s reeling off a selection of dates and happenings, rather than giving us engaging theatre.
The audience sits on the edges of Zahra Mansouri’s pull-apart boxing ring set. With each new chapter of Vanriel’s life comes the announcement of a new round of the boxing match. And as he steps inside the ring to fight, cheer and clap sound effects play from behind and beside us. In Osei-Kuffour’s production, we are coached to be firmly on Vanriel’s side.
And why shouldn’t we be? Despite his mistakes, Vanriel’s had it unspeakably tough. Bediako’s expert performance as the boxer makes us see the weight of all that has gone wrong on his shoulders. Supported by a chorus of Amber James and Ashley D Gayle – who bring ardent enthusiasm and difference to each new caricatured rôle they step into – the picture of Vanriel’s unfairly lost potential is bleak.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. This new play features rap, reggae, soul and poetry, each bringing flashes of joy. Every song the cast breaks into catapults more feeling into this already moving account – even if, sometimes, the music does feel shoehorned in and doesn’t propel the drama forwards.
This might be Vanriel’s personal narrative, but we are all too aware that there are thousands of others like it. These are stories that need telling and ‘On the Ropes’ is just the first round.