Rising Moon Productions/Greater Manchester Fringe Festival
King’s Arms Salford
15 July 2014 to 18 July 2014
Although the story of boxer and campaigner Len Johnson has been told before, notably in Michael Herbert’s book Never Counted Out, it is remarkable that he’s not better known.
Born in Prestwich in the earliest days of the Twentieth Century, Len boxed as middleweight to light heavyweight between April 1920 to October 1933 and fought eight fights in Australia for the British Empire Middleweight title.
Under normal circumstances his success and undoubted prowess should have earned him at least a shot at the British title, or Lonsdale Belt. However these were not normal circumstances. Len was consistently denied his right to challenge for the title by the British Boxing Board of Control solely on the basis that he was black, even though his mother was white, his father had been resident here for many years and Len was born in Manchester.
When Len retired from boxing, disillusioned by this transparent racism, he became a committed campaigner for equality, joining the Communist Party and campaigning specifically against imperialism, for young men in America that were on death row, and for black seamen in Manchester who had been barred. Johnson also took on the unions at the bus corporation who were trying to introduce a colour bar.
“Johnson was not only a fighter as a boxer, he was a fighter in every other way too. He fought tirelessly for the people of Moss Side and he stood for council election on ten occasions. Johnson boxed for 129 fights, he fought everyone, but in his own country, he couldn't become a champion and that would've been enough to kill anybody off but after that, he thought no, I'm going to keep fighting,” believes writer Colin Connor, who recently penned the hit production Meanwhile, which starred Lisa Connor, producer of both this show and the MTA-winning The Best, directed by Nick Birchill, who also directs this production.
So, a great story with an impressive team behind it. Does it work as a stage production? Very much so, albeit with a few minor first-night hiccups that should quickly disappear as the already-impressive ensemble properly find their way forward.
Jarreau Benjamin stars as Len, bringing to life the intriguing blend of vulnerability, passion, politeness and power that, by all accounts, impressed everyone who met the real Len, including the great Paul Robeson, played (and sung) here by Paida Mutonono, who, like the rest of the nine-strong ensemble, is called upon to play multiple parts in a story that stretches across decades and around the world too, through the rise of Fascism, a World War and its aftermath, as well as the Spanish Civil War. That ensemble also features MTA-nominated (as George Best, in The Best) Richard Patterson, as well as several familiar faces from the local fringe scene, including Matt Lanigan, Katie McArdle, Sarah Burial, Alistair Gillies, Garth Maunders and Ryan Mulvey.
Like The Best, this is a show which transcends the ‘just for sports fans’ tag. Birchill’s direction moves everything along briskly enough although, with perhaps just a little judicious trimming and a bit more confidence in some of the singing, an already stirring piece could become a truly great show. But catch it now as part of the excitingly vibrant Greater Manchester Fringe Festival and I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Reviewer: Kevin Bourke