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Interview: Going 12 Rounds With On The Ropes

Director Anastasia Osei-Kuffour on bringing Vernon Vanriel’s story to the stage

Boxing and theatre might not seem the most obvious of bedfellows, but we reckon there have been some wonderful plays that bring the two together. And we hope that On The Ropes, which is playing at Park Theatre right now, will add to that list.

So we were delighted that director Anatasia Osei-Kuffour found some time out of her busy schdule to chat with us about bringing this real life boxer’s story to life.

Photo credit @ Dujonna Gift-Simms

What can you tell us about the play?

It’s a dynamic musical drama set in a boxing ring with a twist, telling the story of the pioneering Lightweight boxer Vernon Vanriel. We see his highs, his lows and how he kept on fighting despite the challenges he faced in his life, not least the challenge of being caught up in the Windrush Scandal and being prevented from coming back home to the UK after visiting family in Jamaica.

Was Vernon someone you were aware of prior to getting involved with the play?

I wasn’t aware of him unfortunately. Realising that when I read the script, I immediately felt the draw to join the effort to bring him back into mainstream consciousness because his story is so inspirational.

Did you get along to any boxing matches as part of your research/ prep for this?

Zahra Mansouri, our designer, and I went to Wembley to see a set of matches and some of the actors and I went to a second boxing event at Alexandra Palace, both visits were very informative and useful for the process of working out how to put the show together.

It’s a musical drama about a boxer – which sounds different! How does the rhythm and structure of a boxing match lend itself to music?

Having visited a modern-day boxing match, I was struck by the many similarities there are to theatre, from the announcer who theatrically announces the boxers, the boxers entering the hall and then the ring to thumping music in performance mode, portraying the character they know the crowd have come to recognise them. At one match there was even a live professional singer performing for one of the boxer’s entrances. I was mostly struck by the thumping music played during breaks in the action and how the crowd sung along to anthemic songs and waived country flags in support of the boxers. It felt celebratory and animated, much like the style of our play.

What musical styles can we expect then?

The music in the play is the soundtrack to Vernon’s life and includes Reggae, Blues and Gospel.

The play’s blurb promises us “12 metaphorical rounds featuring key moments in Vernon’s life” – how has it been working with that kind of structure as a director, what different challenges does it raise?

It has felt right for the story to be presented in this way because the writing is so clear, Vernon and Dougie Blaxland, the co-writers have set out the story so clearly that we are easily guided by the script. Artistically the main challenge has been working out how we can take the staging of a boxing ring and make it say something more, communicate something theatrical and metaphorical about the story. Working with Zahra Mansouri was a great joy and really helped in figuring this out.

It’s co-written by Vernon himself, have you spent time with him to discuss his vision for the play, or is he more hands off at this stage of things?

In summer 2022, we had a research and development week where Vernon communicated his hopes and desires for this production. It was inspirational to have him in the room, have him talk about his life and even take the actors through some boxing training!

The play is of course also about Windrush, is it important to keep making sure we talk about what has, and is in some cases, still happening with this less than flattering part of British history?

It is important. The headlines have disappeared from news outlets, so we need to highlight the fact that there are still thousands of families still dealing with the repercussions of the injustice that happened to them. It’s important that the government stick to their promises of compensation and reversing some of the chaos they caused.

On The Ropes is playing for a month at the Park Theatre, are there other plans to take it elsewhere afterwards? 

There is hope that it will have a further life. What that will be will be determined by how the run at the Park Theatre goes.

Our thanks to Anastasia for chatting about On The Ropes. The play is on right now at Park Theatre until 4 February. Further information and bookings can be found here.

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