A little less than a year ago, when Len Johnson ‘Fighter’ first appeared as part of the 2014 Greater Manchester Fringe Festival, I enthusiastically commented that “with 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”. Et voilà!
After the teensiest bit of trimming (or maybe I’m just fooling myself…) and some work on the music, the show is back at The Kings Arms and, even with one of the cast struggling with his voice on opening night, it really is great, stirring entertainment that I can especially recommend to anyone who agrees that great theatre can be socially conscious without being remotely preachy.
Born in Prestwich in the earliest days of the 20th century, Johnson boxed as middleweight to light heavyweight between April 1920 and 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. But these were not normal circumstances. Johnson 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 Johnson was born in Manchester.
When Johnson 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 who 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,” says writer Colin Connor. “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. That would’ve been enough to kill anybody off but after that he thought no, I’m going to keep fighting.”
Jarreau Benjamin, nominated for Best Fringe Performance for the role at the recent Manchester Theatre Awards, stars as Johnson, bringing to life the intriguing blend of vulnerability, passion, politeness and power that, by all accounts, impressed everyone who met the real Johnson, including the great Paul Robeson.
Robeson is played (and, challengingly, sung) this time around by Wigan-trained Salim Sai, 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 another MTA-nominee (as George Best in The Best) Richard Patterson, as well as Matt Lanigan, Emma Laidlaw, Sarah Burrill, (the ailing) Alistair Gillies, Tristan Brooke and Ryan Mulvey.
Like The Best, also produced by Lisa Connor and directed by Nick Birchill, this is a show which transcends the ‘just for sports fans’ tag. It was picked up by Bolton’s Octagon Theatre after its last run at The Kings Arms and I don’t doubt that it’s got the potential to take on all comers.
By Kevin Bourke
Photos by Shay Rowan