Hostile environments: On The Ropes @ParkTheatre

On the Ropes, currently playing at Park Theatre, tells the real-life story of Vernon Vanriel. The show tells his story over twelve rounds, using the boxing ring as a metaphor. It's a compelling and emotional story of a life interrupted by the Windrush scandal using narration, songs and drama. Perhaps a few trims and a cast in fit and fighting form (without colds, flu or covid) could be a knockout.

Vernon Vanriel's story is about a man who, against all odds, never gives up. Despite the obstacles his way, including ones from his demons. From a trainee electrician to the number two lightweight boxing champion in the UK, he had to deal with crooked promoters and a rigged boxing competition. He never got the opportunity to claim the number one title, and soon, drugs and mental health meant he would lose everything. But he would next find himself up against an even more formidable opponent, the institutionally racist policies of the British government. These policies led to him becoming stateless and living in poverty in Jamaica for 13 years. 

Narrated by Mensah Bediako as Vanriel and joined by Amber James and Ashley D Gayle as a chorus of different characters over his life. James gives the piece an emotional intensity by playing family members and lovers, and Gayle gives the show its energy, singing various irresistible songs to evoke a sense of time and place. 

It is most compelling as it faithfully covers the obstacles Vanriel found attempting to return to the UK after two years in Jamaica. The government cancelled his indefinite leave to remain he could not return to the country where he grew up. The show details in grotesque accuracy how the British government hid behind legalese, rhetoric and petty processes to deny Vanriel (and thousands of others) their fundamental human rights.

You leave the theatre with a sense of anger at the injustice of what the government has done since ministers and officials chose to ignore the warning signs. And given the eagerness to move on from the Windrush scandal, it's good to see a piece ask us what anyone has learned. Meanwhile, irregular immigration continues to rise year after year, regardless. 

Directed by Anastasia Osei-Kuffour and co-written by Vernon Vanriel and Dougie Blaxland, On The Ropes is at Park Theatre until 4 February.


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