A lost slice of Manchester’s past has come back to life in Salford this week. Len Johnson: Fighter tells the story of a boxer, possibly one of the greatest boxers of our time, denied the chance to fight for any titles due to the colour of his skin. After his retirement, he finds himself embroiled in different kind of fight as he joins the Communist Party and begins community work in Moss Side.
Sadly, I suspect few will be aware of Johnson’s story outside of boxing circles. Michael Herbert’s biography “Never Counted Out” would appear to be essential reading for anyone interested (copies wisely available at the show). And in an age where Nicola Adams wins the first female Olympic Gold for boxing, it’s an incredibly timely story.
Colin Connor’s script takes the story across the decades, through the Second World War and to a variety of locations. Snapshots of Johnson’s life at bookended by helpful movie-style captions reminding us when and where we are.
There is the chance, given the myriad of characters that we could become lost. But Connor’s brisk script and articulate characters firmly anchor the action. Nick Birchill’s direction ensures that not only the flow is kept moving, but the nine-strong cast are kept tightly in check. Never do you feel that the stage is crowded, and the tight control exercised by Birchill ensures audiences can keep track of the action. It’s a stylish play as well, the space in the Kings Arms’ studio effectively used, with excellent use of lighting and sound to transport you to the various locations.
A very talented ensemble cast has been brought together with many recognisable faces from the Manchester Fringe scene. Jarreau Benjamin leads as Johnson, initially slightly reserved, he feels his way into the role and appears to relax and become more comfortable the longer the play goes on. He is certainly an imposing on-stage presence, muscles rippling and veins bulging. When he works his way to the front of the on-stage ‘ring’, audience members visibly flinched at this tower of strength charging towards them.
Elsewhere in the ensemble, Richard Patterson, Alistair Gilles (fresh from Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me) and Matt Lanigan provide reliable support as ever. Paterson and Gilles especially impress as a pair of masked corrupt boxing officials. Paida Noel is regal and confident as Paul Robeson, singer and civil rights actives, capturing the whole room in her hands with a moving rendition of ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’.
Towards the end, the momentum is lost. Without the active boxing sequences, the tone wavers to become a little bit preachy. Some messages are repeated to the story’s detriment. A little more subtlety would have stopped the central messages from being a little preachy and therefore watered down. But nonetheless, it is a fascinating story, passionately told.
Comparisons to ‘The Best‘ are perhaps unavoidable. Both deal with a larger than life sports personality, both have an ensemble cast, both transcend their respective sports to become a story about place and time. But where George Best was a victim of the hero worshipping that ultimately was one factor in his downfall, Len Johnson instead craves to be recognised. That recognition eluded him, it would seem. But certainly this play has gone some way into recognising Johnson as a vital component in not only Manchester’s history, but also civil rights history. A knockout performance, that with a few sections tightened up and more confidence in the spellbinding musical numbers could go on to become a real title contender.
The Fiction Stroker gives Len Johnson: Fighter four strokes out of five:
Len Johnson: Fighter runs until July 18 at The Kings Arms, Salford. Michael Herbert’s book ‘Never Counted Out’ is available now. Photo by Shay Rowan.