FringeReview UK 2016
Siobhan Nicholas new play of White Feather Boxer has arrived at The Old Market (TOM) after touring in Eastbourne. Nicholas directs.
The Old Market hosts Take the Space’s production of Siobhan Nicholas’ White Feather Boxer. The trio of Gus Moore, Julie McDonald, Penny Zikic design, with simply0hung props like punch bag and benches. TOM’s simple raised stage can prove a bleak space though TOM has a tradition of innovative space management elsewhere.
The author of Hanging Hooke and Stella is rightly celebrated for her passion-plays of men, women and science, so White Feather Boxer marks a departure: in fact into Nicholas’ own past since members of her family were pugilists. Debates Take the Space held on Pugilism and Pacifism are key to Nicholas’ approach; on the nature of contained conflict – rather than violence.
This dramatization is a unique presentation of it, and bringing home Ali’s pronouncement updates this to a perennial conflict of political coercion versus grounded humaneness. One class’s incomprehension of why others wouldn’t die for flabby politicians whom as we saw with G W Bush, contrived to stay at home in 1967. Ali’s coincidental death further lent this production a poignant, timely authority.
These crystallize in the historical figure of the Quaker pacifist protagonist – Nicholas grounds her dramas in historical personages. Jimmy Mac has run a boxing gym for many years. It’s near the end of April 1967: just as Mohammad Ali is stripped of his title for pacifist views and talking of justice, Mac’s confronted with a new battle of his own. Chris Barnes not only looks the part, in his lean rangy caring for his charges, he enacts the hobbled prizefighter living within the ring of his bright convictions.
He knows young Joe is Jo, his most gifted pupil’s in fact a disguised girl, taking a game battering at the hands of boys but surviving it all. With this admitted he takes her on to coach solo. We’re treated to a virtuoso teasing out of boxing lore and Polly Jordan’s adept and convincing development from awkward haymaker swinger to quick-jabbing strategist. Chris Barnes as lame seventy-two year-old Jimmy gives more love than tough to a child he sees young enough (not quite sixteen) to be his granddaughter, analyzing her motives, troubles and that her mother now lives with Charlie, the nephew of a man, Arthur who once gave Jimmy himself much grief.
The play stays in 1967 though 1914-16 haunts it. Nicholas has cut back into time before, with Stella, a bifurcated period drama set in 2011 and a sliding century from 1768 through to the 1840s. That she doesn’t do so here but proceeds by invoking ghosts has its roots in Jo’s necessary discovery of Jimmy’s nature.
For Jo’s troubled and hasn’t leaned to turn any cheek when set upon by men. Charlie’s a vicious goader and would-be abuser also knows Jimmy’s past, that of a medal-winning prize fighter and pacifist who volunteered in 1914 to drive ambulances. But Jimmy’s stance hardened; he later refused even that. He’s imprisoned alongside hardened criminal Arthur who’s asked unofficially by the authorities to do them a favour. Arthur being Charlie‘s uncle, Jo’s and Jimmy’s fates are curiously entwined. Just as nephew Charlie plagues Jo, so Arthur served those who hated Jimmy’s principles. Jimmy’s denounced as a coward by Charlie and Jo reacts explosively. And not only with Jimmy. She breaks his rules and consequences are dire.
The denouement, Jo’s discovery of the truth, and of a young nurse in Jimmy’s life, is touchingly done, though the exposition out of a trunk seems a Pandora’s box of possibilities not wholly tricked out. Similarly with Jimmy’s calling up ghosts of the war, exceptionally managed sotto voce by Barnes, seems to plead for more dramatic treatment. Sound effects come supremely into their own here with whispers all over the theatre space.
The denouement is fast-paced and exciting, wholly unexpected with several dea ex machinas humming at once like tops. Perhaps more preparation for the brilliance of Jimmy’s concoctions would have helped, but it does make thrilling spectacle.
I wonder if this epic – and there’s a new emotional reach here – doesn’t cry for more in-depth treatment? The war period’s perhaps deliberately shrouded so as not to spoil the headlong 1967 development though it perhaps eddies anyway. It might be magnificently re-orchestrated as a radio play too, where voices and sequences could come into their own. I half-expected Polly Jordan to double as a young nurse, but then a younger Jimmy would have to have been drafted as it were for any true interaction. This is a play on its first runs and Nicholas’ brilliance will certainly turn this into one of the more significant contemporary plays about the legacy of 1914-18.