EFR - Reviews of 'Cornermen'

'Cornermen'

Wed 5th – Sun 30th August 2015

reviews

Liam Marchant

at 02:21 on 10th Aug 2015

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Forget Southpaw, if you see one grit-fuelled boxing drama this summer make sure it’s Cornermen at Pleasance Courtyard – a play as beautifully performed as it is well-written. I would call it a ‘knockout’, but firstly I would never be able to forgive myself, and secondly the piece is far too tender and sincere for such a lame pun.

The narrative of Mickey Donovan (James Barbour), a veteran boxer turned manager, as well as his two trainers, Drew (Jesse Rutherford) and Joey (Oliver Forsyth), form the eponymous cornermen who brawl just as much as their prize fighter, Sid (Andrew Livingstone).

After the cornermen take a risk and sign up Sid, an unknown amateur fighter, the boxer enjoys a rocket-propelled ascent up through the welterweight ranks culminating in a prize fight at Wembley. What should be a painstakingly obvious storyline fitting for any script about sport is electrified by characters who defy all the tired boxing tropes as well as exchanges as forcefully succinct as Sid’s left upper-cut.

‘It’s cyclical this boxing game, keeps on turning’, Mickey sombrely announces in an opening monologue on the twists and turns of Fortuna’s wheel in the sport. Perhaps luck does determine a fair proportion of the success of a boxer’s career, however, Mickey is being just a tad disingenuous here. The internal and external conflicts that Sid finds himself embroiled in throughout Cornermen actually appear to stem in the most part from the utilitarian, money-making framework of the sporting world.

Luck plays a part, yes, but as Drew notes, Sid had ‘so much luck that when it ran out we saw just how out of his depth he was’ – a depth to which he sinks with the ten-tonne weights of management and commercial pressure chained to his legs.

Every performance in Cornerman is wonderful, in particular, Oliver Forsyth (also the playwright behind this fine piece) who shines as Joey, a trainer caught between resentment for his own failed sparring career and a dependence on Sid’s prosperity for his own. Likewise, Jesse Rutherford performs admirably in the role of Drew, the moral conscience of the training unit.

Depite Forsyth’s thorough knowledge of the sport beaming forth through the technical terms and expressions that riddle the script, an interest in boxing is not necessary to enjoy the play. If you're faintly intrigued by the nature of human triumph, ambition, self-doubt, and pride, you'll be floored Cornermen.

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Beckie Rutherford

at 03:42 on 10th Aug 2015

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Boxing is one of those marmite sports and as the subject matter of a dramatic performance it could easily be dull and inaccessible. However, the vitality of the four characters in Cornermen prevents this from being the case. It strikes a poignant balance between roughness and sensitivity and thankfully is nowhere near as blokey as you would expect.

This new production from the critically acclaimed Smoke & Oakum Theatre Company does an excellent job of propelling its audience into the fast-paced world of boxing. Don’t be surprised to find yourself leaving the heady intimacy of the small theatre feeling a great deal more knowledgeable than before – an added bonus which is clearly due to the scriptwriter Oliver Forsyth’s own experience as an amateur boxer.

The plot itself follows the roller-coaster rise of a dull-witted but fiercely talented young boxer, Sid Sparks (Andrew Livingstone). Although Sid is the star in that respect, at the heart of the play is the dynamic between his three coaches, which evolves into something quite tender as the story unfolds. James Barbour stands out as Mickey - a kind of lovable Phil Mitchell – who is initially full of his own self-importance but becomes an increasingly fatherly figure. Forsyth himself takes on the role of Joey, a typical clown who the audience really warm to. The character of Drew, played by Jesse Rutherford, is less charismatic but the sharpest of the three, and the one who warns against pushing Sid too far to reach the top.

The humour throughout the play is very well timed and there are some truly hilarious moments. The dialogue between the three coaches as they prepared for a party was laugh-out-loud. Later on the contrast between monosyllabic Sid and a flamboyant American actor on a chat show had some audience members rolling in their seats. However, the overall humorous take on the violent nature of boxing is dubious. Although all of the actual fighting is cleverly alluded to offstage, Joey’s description of the blood pouring from an opponent’s eye is gruesome and yet strangely poetic. Such apt descriptive barbarism is highly effective, but will definitely not be to everyone’s taste.

It feels slightly uncertain at the end of the performance whether or not the main aim was to appreciate the art of boxing as a sport or to become disillusioned by the corruption and exploitation of the industry. A mixture of the two was probably the intention, and indeed that is the bittersweet atmosphere that the audience are left with when the curtain goes up. Overall though this is thorough and thoughtful entertainment and definitely worth giving your time to.

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