Vernon Vanriel: Telling The Story Of One Of Britain's Great Boxers

By Anastasia Osei-Kuffour Last edited 17 months ago

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Last Updated 05 January 2023

Vernon Vanriel: Telling The Story Of One Of Britain's Great Boxers

This January at the Park Theatre, Anastasia Osei-Kuffour directs a play about one of London's greatest boxers. Here, she reveals why it's so important to know about Vernon Vanriel and his true story.

A silhouette of a boxer, ready to fight
Vernon Vanriel was one of the great boxers of the 1970s/80s, but faced his fair share of challenges outside, as well as inside, the ring.

Vernon Vanriel was a lightweight boxer who rose to number two in the country, number nine in the Commonwealth and number 14 in Europe. He was one of the most influential and charismatic Black British boxers of the 1970s and 1980s, alongside names like Terry Marsh, Maurice Hope and John Conteh.

He was hailed as a magnificent fighter and athlete, and destined to become champion. But his chance to win the top spot was taken away from him due to racism within the boxing fraternity at the time.

Vernon was the first boxer to bring flamboyance (and music as his own anthem, like in Rocky) into the ring. He championed music from his heritage being featured at those matches. His moniker was Vernon 'The Entertainer' Vanriel.

He did things which furthered the sport in a great way. He fought for lower ticket prices so that his matches were more accessible to people from diverse backgrounds. He brought a whole new audience into boxing.

He cared about his community and being British. That is why it was so saddening that he was caught up in the Windrush scandal and prevented from coming back home to the UK after spending two years in Jamaica visiting his family.

Anastasia Osei-Kuffour is directing a play about Vernon Vanriel — one of the most influential and charismatic Black British boxers of the 1970s and 1980s

His remarkable story drew me in when I first read the script, but I was really disappointed that I didn't know anything about him before coming onboard this project. I immediately wanted to be part of bringing Vernon into mainstream consciousness, as he rightly deserves to be.

On The Ropes is a joyful and powerful musical drama about a fighter in every sense of the word — his boxing success and his battle against the injustice of the Windrush scandal.

A man poses with black boxing gloves
Mensah Bediako, who plays Vernon in the play, in rehearsals

I hope by highlighting the injustice he experienced we will raise awareness about the fact that there are also up to 57,000 people still dealing with the consequences of having been caught up in the hostile environment policies that the government championed.

The play is staged in a boxing ring with a dramatic twist, merging the thrilling pugilistic atmosphere with theatrical storytelling and musical numbers. Having worked with Vernon and Dougie Blaxland, the co-writers, in summer 2022, to develop the potential of the play, I could see that Vernon is a man who clearly has gone through a lot of hardship but seems to wear it lightly. His faith in God and his deep love of music shines through the most.

This play reflects his energy, joy and fighting spirit.

On The Ropes is on at Park Theatre, Finsbury Park from 10 January-4 February 2023 (previews from 6 Jan).