Writer: Michael Dunbar
Directors: Taoanna Tsiki and Christopher Lowry
Cautiously, some theatres have began to unlock their doors for inside performances and previewing over at the huge Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre is Sleepless the Musical, on schedule to open next week. In stark contrast across the river in Clapham is the tiny Bread and Roses theatre with its show, the provocatively entitled F**k Off. Asterisks notwithstanding, Michael Dunbar’s play will struggle to entice audiences back inside.
This story about a working-class boxer coming back from a two-year break has potential, but the narrative is often confused and some subplots, involving the two women in his life, suck out the energy before the fight has even begun. Henry worries that he has ‘ring-rust’ as he has not fought for such a long time. His trainer and friend, Bill, says that with some intensive practice he will be as formidable as before. ‘Stop overthinking’ Bill encourages,’ Get up and box!’
Early scenes quickly rattle by, but some seem out of order. We see Henry break up with Jess before we see them in love, and we also see him flirt with Karolina, a new bartender at the boxing club. Fortunately, the shifts in chronology settle down when he agrees to fight a Mexican, perhaps before he’s fully fit, and this should be the focus of the story but an errant father then gets in the way.
While his play is disjointed, as Henry, Dunbar is excellent, and jumping around in his Champion trackies he is a tight ball of energy, and when he addresses the socially distanced audience members he unnerves them by eyeballing them directly. Although he’s very credible, he can’t quite pull off the scene where he’s required to wear some extremely ill-placed bandages.
As Henry’s trainer, Thomas Winter puts in good work, matching Dunbar’s physicality when they spar, getting ready for the big fight. But Hayley Mitchell as Jess and Arieta Visoka as Karolina have little to do but moon over Henry to such an extent that one wonders whether F**k Off would be better as a two-hander between the boxer and his trainer.
Only once are the four actors on stage together, describing the bout, and this scene proves to be the most exciting, and comes as a relief to the other scenes which lack drive, not helped by the awkward design of the Bread and Roses stage, where actors exit and entrance through a curtain.
It’s good to be back in a theatre, but F**k Off , although not a new show, feels like a work-in-progress. Like Henry, this play isn’t quite ready for fight-night. It’s not quite on the ropes, but it’s no knockout either.
Runs until 29 August 2020