Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Anastasia Osei-Kuffour: On The Ropes

By | Published on Monday 2 January 2023

Beginning its run at the Park Theatre this week is the very compelling sounding ‘On The Ropes’ by Vernon Vanriel and Dougie Blaxland.

The play is about the life of co-writer Vernon Vanriel, and tells of his rise to prominence in British boxing in the 1970s and 1980s, and the story of his fight for British citizenship as a result of the Windrush scandal. 

To find out more about the play and what to expect from it, I spoke to the director of the piece, Anastasia Osei-Kuffour.

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about Vernon Vanriel, the co-writer of the piece and the person ‘On The Ropes’ is about?
AO-K: Vernon Vanriel was a high ranking, lightweight boxer from Tottenham, rising to number two in British boxing through the late 70s and early 80s.

North London was his home for most of his life, but when he went to Jamaica in 2005 to visit family he was caught up in the Windrush scandal.

He ended up being stuck in Jamaica for thirteen years before he finally won the right to come back to the UK and fight for British citizenship, something he thought he’d already been granted as a child.

CM: What can we expect from the narrative of the play? What story does it tell?
AO-K: The play charts his rise to boxing prominence from his childhood to becoming British number two, revealing the internal and external challenges he experienced during and after his success, before going on to show his tortuous time in Jamaica and his fight to come back home to Britain.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
AO-K: Faith, self-belief, having a fighting spirit, racism and injustice.

CM: There are musical elements, aren’t there? What kind of music can we expect?
AO-K: It’s a dynamic play infused with music Vernon considers to be the soundtrack to his life. Genres include reggae and gospel, as well as R&B and soul, and audiences will recognise many of the tunes.

CM: What made you want to work on this show? What do you love about it?
AO-K: I greatly admire Vernon’s fighting spirit in the face of so many adversities and challenges in his life. It’s inspiring.

I was also drawn to the poetry and lightness of the writing which lets the story unfold in a fun, joyful and celebratory way despite some of the serious subject matter.

Most significantly, I was drawn to the fact that the story has an important message – highlighting the injustices in the immigration system and the thousands affected by the hostile environment.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast and creative team?
AO-K: We have an amazingly talented cast of three. Mensah Bediako plays present-day Vernon, who goes back in time to tell the story of his life. Then Amber James and Ashley D Gayle play multi-rolling chorus members. All of them are of Caribbean heritage and can sing!

CM: Can we talk about you, now? What drew you to a career in the arts? Was it what you always wanted to do? How did your career begin?
AO-K: I began directing professionally after completing the Introduction To Directing course at the Young Vic in 2012.

That is when I discovered what directing is and I was drawn to the magic of creating something out of nothing, creating a vehicle – so to speak – for telling a story which moves and touches people.

Before that I was pursuing a career in Business Law which I turned away from when I realised I’d found something that I truly love doing.

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far?
AO-K: I remember scraping together money to produce my first professional production at the Finborough Theatre in 2017 and being moved to tears because I’d finally achieved a milestone after five years assisting on productions etc. I was finally directing my own production.

Another highlight was directing ‘Typical’ by Ryan Calais Cameron at Soho Theatre, which is on Soho Theatre On Demand right now.

‘Typical’ was inspired by the true story of Christopher Alder who died in police custody in 1998. His sister, when she came to watch the show, thanked us for sharing her burden in telling Christopher’s story – it felt like we had done more than just create art.

CM: What aims and hopes do you have for the future?
AO-K: I hope to get consistent directing work, directing on the main stages of major theatres across the country. I also hope to launch my writing career successfully and break into film directing as well.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
AO-K: I am directing a production called ‘All Roads’ written by Roy Williams which will tour London in March 2023, going to Theatre Peckham, Tramshed, Bernie Grant Arts Centre and New Wimbledon Theatre.

I will then be working on my debut play as a writer, which I will direct as well, called ‘Love Stepz’, at The Omnibus Theatre in Clapham.

On The Ropes’ is on at The Park Theatre from 6 Jan-4 Feb. See the venue website here for more information and to book tickets.

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Photo: Dujonna Gift-Simms