The scandal of Windrush – James Haddrell reviews theatre production On The Ropes at the Park Theatre, Finsbury Park

In 1962, at the age of six, Vernon Vanriel left Jamaica, and along with his mother, his older brother and three sisters, he travelled to England to join their father who had come here to work.

James Haddrell, artistic and executive director of Greenwich Theatre

Vernon went on to become a boxer – England’s number two, regularly competing at the Royal Albert Hall – but that counted for nothing when he travelled back to Jamaica in 2005 to visit family, only to find himself prevented from returning to England.

A child of commonwealth citizens, Vernon hadn’t needed paperwork when he arrived in the 1960s, travelling instead on his mother’s passport.

While this was common practice then, it would later contribute to the Windrush scandal when Vanriel and other undocumented migrants fell foul of the ‘Hostile Environment’ legislation, becoming excluded from public services, health care and employment to ultimately make it impossible for them to continue living here.

In Vanriel’s case, it took 13 years before he was finally permitted back into the country.

Now, the former boxer’s story is to be told in a new musical play, On the Ropes, opening at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park in January, co-written by Dougie Blaxland and Vanriel himself and directed by South Londoner Anastasia Osei-Kuffour.

“I think people might be surprised by the show,” she said. “There are so many things that happen but the story is all taken from Vernon’s life.

“That is one of the things that draws me to a story. I love true stories, or stories inspired by real life.

“People should know they’re coming to see a dramatic retelling of a true story.”

The show has been developed over the course of the past year with Vanriel involved both in the writing and in the realisation of the piece on stage.

“We had an R&D in the summer,” Anastasia continued, “which laid down a lot of the foundations of what we’re doing now, and Vernon was very much with us that week. He even gave our actors a boxing lesson!”

Boxing is not something that Anastasia particularly followed before signing on to direct this show.

“The style of the play is a metaphorical 12-round bout and we’re in a boxing ring” she said, “but while I had seen clips of boxing over the years, the big greats like Muhammad Ali, it’s not something I followed – so this production made me go to my first boxing match. It was so eye-opening – it was like a club night, moving lights, music, people singing along to major anthems – not exactly how I expected it to be, and actually very theatrical.

“Music is as much a part of this new show as it is part of the pageantry of boxing.

“Music is so important to Vernon – it basically soundtracks his life. This play couldn’t exist without there being music. The songs are peppered through at significant moments in the story, music from the time underscoring each event.

“Ultimately, though everything that happened to Vernon has taken its toll, on his mental and physical health, the show remains light and joyful” she concluded.

“At the heart of it is Vernon’s fighting spirit… no matter what he goes through, whatever difficult blows he receives, he still gets up. We see his struggles and then we see how he gets through those struggles. It’s uplifting in the sense that we see someone who goes through major challenges and isn’t defeated by them.”

Vanriel himself described the play as a dream come true.

“After 13 long years of being voiceless and invisible, the writing and staging of On The Ropes has given me the opportunity to be acknowledged and heard,” he said.

“Having my story told in my own words will mark the final step in my homecoming.”




Picture: Anastasia Osei-Kuffour Picture: Dujonna Gift-Simms

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