DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Cornermen – Shaw Lane Sports Club, Barnsley

Writer: Oli Forsyth

Producer: Smoke & Oakum Theatre

Sound/Lighting: Joshua Lucas

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Red Ladder Theatre’s policy of taking small cast plays into the community by staging them in local clubs and halls, extends to their programming some Northern dates by London-based company Smoke & Oakum. The spacious and comfortable Shaw Lane Club was the latest venue for Oli Forsyth’s Cornermen, originally performed at the Old Red Lion in London in 2015 and since then seen mainly in the South of England and at the Edinburgh Fringe.

It’s hardly surprising that Cornermen was a hit on the Fringe. At 70 minutes it’s sharply written and even more sharply acted, it’s funny, with easy to identify characters, and, if it doesn’t live up to claims of being tragic as well as funny, it is thought-provoking, with serious points to make. And it travels light, with the actual play script specifying a staging of four stools and a square of canvas. The stools are for the cast to sit on when off-stage (i.e. off the canvas) and are pressed into service to be anything from a pub bar to a railway carriage. 

The plot of Cornermen is basically that of many a boxing fiction: a young man comes from nowhere, stars in the ring, gets his big chance, fails, becomes old before his time. However, in various ways, Forsyth tweaks the story to iron out the clichés. The ending, for instance, is not dramatically tragic, but rather sad and mundane; the young boxer is not cheated out of glory, but is lucky to get as far as he does; above all, the play focuses on his coach and cornermen whose motives are – shall we say? – mixed.

Mickey, Joey and Drew want to find a young boxer for purely economic reasons: they need to earn some money and all the boxers they know have quit, are useless or don’t trust them. Ideally, they are looking for a good journeyman fighter, someone who can win some and lose some and pick up a solid living giving up-and-comers a decent run for their money. When Sid Sparks proves to be rather better than that, Mickey is as confused as he is delighted and finds himself in uncharted waters with a dodgy compass. Refreshingly, the play has more of reality than romance about it: from beginning to end, the main focus is on Mickey and his mates making a living.

Essentially this is an ensemble performance. James Barbour (Mickey), Jesse Rutherford (Drew) and Oli Forsyth (Joey) all have their moments, Rutherford and Forsyth in fiery confrontations with Sid in the gym, Barbour in engagingly frank monologues about his motivation, but for much of the time they operate as one, with high speed overlapping dialogue. George Jovanovic as Sid begins as a blank page, almost uncommunicative with Mickey or a reporter, then responds convincingly to pressures as diverse as getting beaten up by a better boxer and appearing on a television chat show with an American film star.

No director is listed. Presumably, as writer, actor, founder of Smoke & Oakum and himself an amateur boxer, Forsyth has a big hand in it. Anyway it’s taut, pacy and convincingly physical, aided by well-judged sound effects.

Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed

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Pacy and convincing

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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