It’s an admirable piece of work, made more so by the fact – as artistic director Jez Bond told us during a pre-show announcement – the cast has been battling illness throughout rehearsals, and only made it through press night thanks to medication.
The play, which is peppered with familiar reggae and soul songs, is structured like a boxing match, the 12 rounds taking us from childhood through to his eventual emotional return to the UK. It’s in some ways a highly familiar rise–fall–redemption arc, echoing boxing biopics like Cinderella Man and The Fighter. But the details of Vanriel’s outrageous treatment by the Home Office (there’s a nice line about the government fighting “in the right corner”) lends it a searing topicality.
Anastasia Osei-Kuffour’s production is played out – as you’d probably expect – in a boxing ring (designed by Zahra Mansouri), which is split into quarters as the story progresses, echoing the increasingly fragmented state of Vanriel’s mind, which begins shortly after the Albert Hall bout in 1983 when he experiences a psychotic breakdown. Choreographer Gabi Nimo and fight director Jeremy Barlow stage the bouts themselves in classic shadow-box fashion, as Mensah Bediako’s Vernon showcases some fancy footwork.
Bediako manages the difficult task of portraying the vast span of Vernon’s life, from teenager to 60-something. His muscular build means he convinces as a champion boxer, while he also captures his extreme vulnerability. He is ably supported by Amber James and Ashley D Gayle, who play a range of characters from family members and managers to coldly bureaucratic immigration officials. There’s palpable passion in all three performances.
The play’s major stumbling block is its pacing and length. Like a prize fighter it should be nimble on its feet, but too often feels sluggish and in need of further work in the gym. Part of this can be put down to those aforementioned rehearsal challenges, but further cutting at the development stage would have been judicious. The proliferation of songs, from Jimmy Cliff classics to a climactic rendition of “Something Inside So Strong”, is certainly rousing but at times hampers rather than enhances the storytelling.
But Vanriel’s story undoubtedly does merit telling. One is left at the end aghast at the way he was treated, but also alarmed at the idea there are so many others like him. As he himself highlights, he is just one of thousands caught up in this shameful episode. It’s time those responsible were properly held to account.