“You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice.”

Credit: Steve Gregson

The musical drama, On The Ropes, premiered at Park Theatre, sharing the remarkable story of former boxer Vernon Vanriel. Co-written by Vanriel and Dougie Blaxland and directed by Anastasia Osei-Kuffour, this autobiographical play depicts the rise and fall of one of the prominent Black British boxers of the 70s and 80s. 

With a rhythmic script and a soundtrack of nostalgic reggae, funk, and gospel, the music is a narration to Vanriel’s journey.

Mensah Bediako portrays Vernon Vanriel at all stages of his life and career. Born in Jamaica, Vanriel arrived in the United Kingdom as part of the Windrush Generation, residing in Tottenham from the age of 6. We learn Vanriel’s struggle in education prompted him to take up boxing to championship fights at the Royal Albert Hall to his advocacy for affordable boxing tickets. 

The life of Vanriel is astonishing, and while we celebrate the highs against a backdrop of joyous reggae and synchronised dances, the lows are unveiled. Vanriel battles through drug addiction, a mental illness, and a heart condition. Sadly, the struggles don’t end there. In his 50s, Vanriel takes an extended trip to Jamaica, only to find his right to remain in Britain has been unjustly removed.  

On The Ropes packs several significant life moments into the story, with the Windrush Scandal explored in the shorter Second Act. Some scenes could have been minimised, to allow further exploration into Vanriel’s struggle with drugs, as this appeared quite abruptly out of the blue. 

Credit: Steve Gregson

Despite being content heavy, the play is captivating. The cast had us engrossed with passionate performances. Supporting actors Amber James and Ashley D Gayle stood out as they fantastically portrayed various characters such as family members, boxing promoters, police officers. Their multi roleplaying added light humour to the play. I was impressed with how the pair seamlessly transformed between different accents, mannerisms, and body movements. I admired the precise detailing throughout the performance such as Holly Ellis and Gareth Fry’s succinct lighting and sound design choices, signally when a new character entered the scene. 

Osei-Kuffour’s directorial choices were another standout; with a stage set out as a boxing ring, designed by Zahra Mansouri, the boxing ring slowly being separated by fragments was a great metaphor for how Vanriel’s life began to fall apart. I also enjoyed the use of juxtaposition in certain scenes that compared the boxer’s frightening moments to boxing matches. 

On The Ropes is powerful and enthralling. It’s an important play that isn’t afraid to speak out on the wrongdoings with the Windrush Scandal. To watch Vanriel go through years of suffering in poverty, losing family and experience the injustice from the UK Government is emotionally compelling. But Vanriel is a fighter. One whose strength has given him the stage to tell his incredible story! I felt many emotions, but mostly proud to have learned about Vernon ‘The Entertainer’ Vanriel. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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