THEATRE REVIEW: On The Ropes starring Mensah Bediako, Ashley D Gayle and Amber James at the Park Theatre

By Neil Durham

WORTH A LOOK?: ***1/2

WHEN?: Tuesday 10 January (press ticket), runs to 4 February 2023

RUNTIME: 140 minutes (including a 20-minute interval)

We cast our eye across the audience at this 200-seat venue and we can see Beverley Knight, David Morrissey, Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar.

  • Read on for reasons including how it’s the performance of classic hits like Labi Siffre’s Something Inside So Strong which works best here

The presence of such big hitters in this audience at this press night tells us that On The Ropes – a musical drama telling the story of boxer Vernon Vanriel who arrived in Britain aged 6 with his family as part of the Windrush Generation, found sporting fame, fled to Jamaica and then faced a legal battle to return home – has many notable faces willing it on.

Jez Bond, Founding Artistic Director of this venue, takes to the stage before curtain up to explain he is doing so for the 1st time in 10 years to explain that the cast has been ill and gone through a great deal to be in a position to perform for us tonight.

Bediako as Vanriel does appear to be struggling with a cough and this is better suited to the second half of this piece where he struggles with his mental health and his enthusiasm for cocaine causes his boxing career to falter.

The 1st half of this piece concerns itself with Vanriel’s rise to boxing fame and his co-stars James and Gayle are fine singers doing a lot of work dancing around their charismatic and believable star playing multiple roles.

The stage in the 1st half is a boxing ring and we learn a great deal about Vanriel’s natural talent, his determination to lower bout ticket prices to allow a more diverse audience to attend, his enthusiasm for celebrating success after fights with his fans and his refusal to be quiet in the media about the frustrations he comes up against in the boxing world.

There are Jamaican and British flags on the seats in the auditorium and on its walls and the most uplifting moments here are when the enthusiasm for music of our hero – the so-called ‘Titan of Tottenham’ – is reflected with performance of hits from the 70s and 80s including Young, Gifted and Black, I Can See Clearly Now and Ooh La La (Let’s Go Dancing).

The story is written by Vernon Vanriel himself and Dougie Blaxland and if we had a criticism it would be that the 12-round framing device made the piece feel too long and the detail we are given about his rise to sporting success just feels like several dates and fight details too many.

The 2nd half concerns itself with Vanriel’s legal fight against the Home Office and while we empathise with his plight it’s a frustration we felt was better explored quite recently by The P Word at the Bush Theatre.

A heavy political point is made as the show reaches its conclusion and while it lands here in this red corner of north London it feels a little heavy-handed.

While not quite a knockout, On The Ropes is certainly a heartfelt story about a flawed hero that deserves to be heard and when it quite literally sings its joy it is at its most strong.

  • Main picture via Facebook courtesy Park Theatre Tickets
  • Have you seen an Park Theatre production before and what did you think of it?
  • Let us know what you thought in the comments below
  • Enjoyed this review? Follow monstagigz on Twitter @NeilDurham, email neildurham3@gmail.com and check us out on Instagram and Facebook

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