Written by British actor/writer James Gaddas, Shadowboxing is a one man play coming in at about one muscular hour. I was warned by director John Bishop before entering that “It's no Mary Poppins.” I'm not sure what it was about my appearance that warranted such a warning... I put it down to the sweetness of my tutu wearing, fluro dreaded partner The Dreaded One.
Certainly, Shadowboxing is no Mary Poppins. Nor was it the most gut-wrenching piece of theatre I've seen, as I may have started to expect after the Mary Poppins jibe, nor the most depressing. But it is tough. It's lean. And if I were the kind of reviewer to deploy lame themed descriptions, I might be tempted to say it pulled no punches.
Ron Kofler plays boxer Flynn. He's alone on stage with a punching bag, a bench, some weights and skipping rope. For the entire hour or so he slugs it out, lifts, skips, generally gives himself a thorough workout while sometimes narrating his story, sometimes acting it out. Rehearsal for this part clearly involves as much working-out as delivering his lines. It's a demanding part handled in this case, flawlessly.
And the story? Flynn has issues. He has issues with his father, also a boxer (not present in adult Flynn's life). There are flashbacks to young Flynn apparently traumatised at seeing his father take a beating in the ring which has a lasting effect on the course of Flynn's life, namely his determination to win. Young Flynn also has issues with bullies, all of this by way of background to give us some idea of what drives the adult Flynn.
Flynn also has issues with women, with ego, with his all-consuming determination to be the champ, with the very nature of boxing.
Overriding all these issues, however, is the big one that doesn't reveal itself until perhaps three quarters through the play. It comes as a bit of a surprise, even though, by this time, you realise the clues were perhaps there all along.
Flynn's world starts to fall apart and, embittered, he sets out to prove a point and in doing so makes things a whole lot worse for himself in a pretty disturbing climax.
It was during these final scenes that I started to wonder what the point was. Don't we live in more enlightened times? What we're seeing here – is this such an issue? But then this is elite sport and you only have to thinks of the appalling behaviour of some footballers in recent times to realise that no, many of these guys are far from enlightened. Still, as gripping as the story was, I still wondered about its relevance.
And then a beautiful touch right at the end. The back of the stage lit up with grainy photos of a couple of boxers from the 60s, their story silently told as the gentle optimism of Somewhere Over The Rainbow played, and it all fell into place. While Shadowboxing isn't a re-telling of this 60s story, it does seem to draw heavily on key elements, making Flynn's story very real and – given the nature of boxing as entertainment – very relevant. This haunting coda will leave you feeling quite moved.
It's a brave production company that would take this piece on, given that the script is very good and that it requires a very strong performer to do it justice under these conditions. And it's a good production company that can pull it off. Swampfox Productions is one such company. Well cast, well acted, and technical direction by Dietmar Brisker subtle enough to let this raw performance shine.
Worth the journey to Melbourne's far Eastern suburbs? Definitely. Well maybe not if you live in, say Manhattan, but you know what I mean.
At The Bakery at 1812 Theatre, Rose St, Upper Fern Tree Gully on selected nights until May 14th. Check www.swampfoxproductions.com.au for details.