Theatre Review: Cornermen, Unity Theatre, Liverpool

Image Source: Unity Theatre
                Image Source: Unity Theatre

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Play
Genre: Drama
Date: March 13 2018
Location: Unity Theatre, Liverpool

“It’s cyclical this boxing game, keeps on turning.” Those words by Mickey (James Barbour), a local boxing trainer and manager, open the show and plant the seeds for the story we are about to be told.

For Mickey and his team of cornermen Drew (Jesse Rutherford) and Joey (Oli Forsyth) have been through this cycle so many times before, often discovering a potential prospect that they are able to build up to a certain level, before the inevitable occurs and they are back where they began. They are making money from the game, but not very much. They may be highly knowledgeable about the sport, but the only way they can truly progress is by finding a can’t-miss fighter in the making.

That comes in the form of Sid Sparks (George Jovanovic), a journeyman boxer serving as an electrician repairs apprentice by trade. Mickey offers him a handshake deal to become his new trainer, with the dangling carrot of providing him with the opportunity to really become a name in the sport. Sid agrees, though Mickey and his team are a bit concerned that Sid is so shy, since it means that they have to do all the talking when it comes to promotional interviews. In the ring, though, Sid holds up his end of the bargain, and he quickly establishes himself as one of the more exciting up-and-comers on the circuit.

A turning point comes when Sid is matched up against Mark Hayward, a larger and far more experienced fighter. For the first time, doubt creeps in as to whether or not Sparks has what it takes, which is why Sid’s cornermen have to establish a much clearer gameplan in order to win. Their strategy is a little questionable (planning to win via referee stoppage as opposed to a points triumph or a straight knockout), but it proves successful, and Sid and the team go out to celebrate. At this point, Sid lets slip that he has a girlfriend, Heather; we never see her, and we only occasionally hear about her, but it’s a sign that the shy, mumbling Sparks of old has been replaced by someone with a lot more confidence and charisma.

That unfortunately transfers over into his lifestyle, and his regular drinking starts to really concern Mickey and co., at a time when Sparks is starting to work his way into title contention. A planned showdown with Gary Hooper, with a title shot against Jack Macy for the winner, will be Sparks’ biggest challenge to date. But Drew has doubts, and even Sid starts to question whether he has what it takes, not helped whatsoever by his growing fondness for the bottle, which is beginning to affect his ring work.

The training becomes intense and at times confrontational, and on fight night, Sid looks a step off, putting his chances in jeopardy. Once again, it’s up to the cornermen to find a route to victory, and this time, the tactics are even more questionable, running the real risk of being disqualified for cheating. But it’s played so subtly that Sid gets away with it, and the victory, and subsequent title shot, is his. Jack Macy is up next at Wembley Stadium for the British Welterweight Championship.

It’s undoubtedly Sid’s biggest fight to date, and it’s by far the biggest opportunity in the careers of Mickey and his cornermen. But with that comes a smaller chance of actually pulling off the win, and though the strategy for this fight appears to be spot-on by focusing on Macy’s weak stamina and lack of extended ring time, and Sid is 100% committed towards his career at this point, the size of the task ahead soon becomes clear, with Drew even recommending that they call the fight off to allow Sid a chance to continue building momentum, and to enjoy the success he has attained before it potentially crumbles with one high-profile defeat. As a promoter who views pound signs over emotions, Mickey instead ensures that the fight goes ahead, and that the terms and conditions totally suit Macy, because he knows deep down that a Sparks victory could make him a very rich man.

We don’t see any boxing during the show; Sparks heads towards combat, and a freeze-frame effect comes into play as one of the cornermen become the narrator for the ongoing bout; each of the three takes turns in this role throughout the show in speaking directly to the audience, with Sparks only communicating to his fellow characters. Except on one ocassion, during this explosive title fight, where at the pivotal moment, it’s Sid’s turn to become the narrator. This is a major moment in the show, and in Sid’s story – but is it for positive or negative reasons? Indeed, is this the moment where Sparks becomes British Welterweight Champion and the toast of the British boxing circuit, or does this fight mark the peak of what then becomes a downhill career, thus providing Mickey’s assertion correct about the sport being cyclical?

The Unity Theatre makes for an intimate environment, meaning that the acting is up close and personal. Given the proximity of the audience to the performers, all involved do a tremendous job at keeping their concentration and remembering a ton of lines in what is a very fast-moving show. Indeed, scenes will change at a second’s notice, meaning there is little respite for the performers. The cast also occasionally play multiple roles; for instance, Jesse Rutherford also serves as an interviewer, a chat show host and, during one amusing scene where Sid begins to land advertising roles for the likes of Head & Shoulders and PLO Life Insurance, an inquisitive child asking Sparks how he achieved his success. There are so many lines to remember in such a short amount of time, and while there was the odd slip-up, the cast did a tremendous job of keeping the story moving at a speed that was breathless, yet never overwhelming to the audience.

The story itself will be familiar to any boxer who has shot up the ranks and soon found themselves in a real “sink or swim” situation. It’s not entirely a focus on Sid Sparks, though; as the title suggests, the central characters are the Cornermen, and Mickey in particular. For a fighter is only as good as his last result; a crushing defeat negates dozens of victories, and can see him slide into obscurity in next-to-no time. A promoter, though, can rebound by discovering his next hot prospect, and going through the journey all over again. A fighter who has a career ceiling will achieve a certain level of success. A promoter who has several boxers of this ilk can achieve ten times the level of fortune, because there will always be another fighter on the rise, looking for the right trainer. And when his career falters, there’ll be another star of the future searching for the same opportunity. Hence boxing being a cyclical business.

It’s also intriguing to consider the morals of those involved. Sid is not a bad lad by any means, but what could he achieve if he managed to kick his drinking habits to the curb for good? But at the same time, why shouldn’t a lad in his 20s with increasing fame be allowed to enjoy his moment in the spotlight, especially considering that he’s in a sport where you’re one particularly hard punch away from having your career ended in a heartbeat? On the other hand, the three cornermen all have the right intentions and they know the game very well. But are they – Mickey, more than anybody – more concerned with making money than preserving Sid’s health and wellbeing, and are their occasionally shady tactics something to admire or something to reject? For each character, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. Such is the life of being a boxer, and of being a boxing promoter.

The show is a bit on the short side, lasting just over an hour. But given the speedy pace of the show, it manages to pack quite the punch (sorry) by essentially telling a 90-minute story within 65. Plus, it ensures that there are no dull moments, and that every scene means something. So, I actually preferred the shorter running time, as it made for a more tightly-run and logically-told story.

Overall, Cornermen is a very well-performed, carefully-written, fast-paced and thought-provoking piece on one of the country’s most popular sports. Those who have personally experienced the highs and lows that are emphasised in the show will find this production particularly engaging.

Overall Rating: 8/10 – Very Good