Writer: Terry O’Neill
Director: Michael James Ford
In a knockout performance at Bewley’s Café Theatre, Terry O’Neill showcases his youthful incarnation as a champion Irish boxer on the international scene. Known for his acting roles on TV and in film (Love/Hate, Striking Out, Michael Inside and The Meeting), O’Neill has also carved out a noteworthy career as a stand-up comedian on stages across Ireland and the UK.
Against a backdrop of posters from Ring Magazine and to an instantly recognisable cinematic theme tune, O’Neill steps through the ropes of a partially constructed boxing ring onto the platform. Divested of his black hooded robe, the boxer is dressed for practice rather than a bout. He is fighting fit and punchy from the off. In a fun and funny opening we are invited to guess whether hilarious moniker’s such as ‘Homicide Hank’ or ‘Andrew six heads Lewis’ belong to serial killers or boxers.
Continuing to side-step, bounce, jab, cross and hook, O’Neill draws us into the world of the boxer where clubs smell of “lynx, leather and disinfectant” and “controlled violence is intoxicating”. It’s easy to see how the 12 year old boy from Crumlin was seduced. He spent “endless hours” sparring in front of a mirror and went on to win 130 fights – “lost 30, never got knocked out, never got knocked down”. This athleticism is probably what propelled O’Neill through 25 consecutive performances of Rope-a-Dope at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival this August.
The Boxer’s wit is innate. He is naturally self-deprecating and engaging. Like a modern day seanchaí (bearer of lore) he weaves his tale with humorous anecdotes, captivating asides, a little audience participation and stirring music. Colm Maher is a very safe pair of hands on sound and lighting. At one point O’Neill hastily iterates a long and historical list of famous boxers and their challengers. But there is no need to hurry – it is a compelling catalogue.
While we laugh uproariously throughout this show, reference is also made as to how boxing can engender positive experiences for young people with varying social, emotional and mental health issues. And further to above, gives those struggling against discrimination, racism or addiction a reason to wake up and to get up in the morning. The sometimes dark and murky criminal underbelly of promoters and money people gets a mention too.
Rope-a-dope is a term that’s used to describe how a boxer might protect himself by leaning into the ropes of a boxing ring, as if exhausted. This incites his opponent to volley forth with a series of non-injurious punches, tiring himself out, at which point the fighter surprises his adversary and comes out swinging. Muhammad Ali was synonymous with the technique.
Although boxing was O’Neill’s “first love” – after thousands of jabs to his head and many concussions, he feared ending up impaired by CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) like so many others. And while he misses “the camaraderie” and “identifying as a fighter”, dining out on his exploits or re-living his wins vicariously through stories in the pub was not for Terry O’Neill. This man was going to “choose new things” and “make new choices”… so he stepped forward and with a killer punch, completely reinvented himself as an actor, comedian and first rate entertainer.
If Rope-a-Dope comes to a theatre near you, do yourself a favour and catch it if you
Runs until 7th October 2023.