From the company that brought us the brilliant Kings, Smoke and Oakum bring a new play to VAULT about boxing and mentorship. We spoke to Oli about Cornermen and the way the show was made.
What drove you to make Cornermen?
The idea for 'Cornermen' came out of time I'd spent as an amateur boxer. When I wrote the show in 2014 I was training at a club that had a real spread of talent, from raw beginners to professionals fighting for area titles.
As a result I found myself working, sparing and training alongside men and women who were imminently about put their health on the line for a small pay day and the chance of something better in the future. To be in that environment was incredibly exciting but also gave me an insight into one of the most fascinating relationships I've seen, that of fighter and trainer.
You see, while the boxer is putting themselves through a hellish training camp, from the hard graft at the beginning through to the weight cut at the end, they are going through it with their trainer. These coaches have to push, inspire, reassure, bully, break and build their charges and then, once all the training is done, help them out in a fight where someone is trying to knock them cold.
What you get is an incredibly interesting mix of parent and boss, friend and teacher which, when things are going well, looks great, but when things get sticky and the stakes go up, can get very complicated.
The complexity of that relationship led me to 'Cornermen'.
Who is Cornermen for?
At the risk of spouting cliches, everyone and anyone. I'm really not interested in presenting an overly macho tale of finding the inner strength to overcome adversity, we've already got Rocky and Southpaw for that.
What we're showing is the story of Sid Sparks, a boxer who's not naturally a top contender, he's only just about top 10, but he has a team that want to push him far past where he belongs and he catches enough lucky breaks to put him near to top of his weight class. The overriding question is whether or not Mickey and his team should be putting Sid in the kind of fights where he's so obviously out of his depth.
When we first created this show the responses we got from audiences who didn't like boxing, or knew nothing about it, was really heartening. We don't dumb down the technicalities of the sport, and we don't simplify Sid's journey, but we do present it in a way that's appealing for any audience member.
What’s the most important thing that theatre should be/do/have?
I think first and foremost it should be good. Or at least it should be striving to be good, I won't pretend that we've never staged a bad show! I reckon theatre is a pretty broad canvas and there should be room for all of it, from hard hitting one person shows to West End farces, provided it's good, that it's not trying to cut corners and that it's not settling for 'that'll do'.
In Smoke & Oakum's own history we've gone from making comedy about terrorism to drama about homelessness, and all the rest that went between. What strings them together is that, at every turn, we pushed, tweaked and cajoled to make sure it was as good as it could be. Sometimes it works, others it doesn't, but if that's the main objective, then you're doing something right.
If you had to make a new show, what CURRENT news story would you like to make a show about?
I'm making a new show as we speak and it's based on a current news story but I'm keeping that one pretty schtum!
Otherwise, if I was picking something out of the news at the moment, I think the discovery of a jaw bone in Israel that moves the homo sapien exodus from Africa forward potentially 50,000 years is pretty incredible. Not sure how it would work on stage but I'd love to see someone give it a go.
What theatre ‘turn offs’ do you have?
I'm pretty open to anything. I have a small thing about grown actors playing children in a sincere way, always drags me right out of a show, but then who can afford child actors on an Equity contract? Otherwise I think the assumption that you, or your audience, are right can lead to some pretty limited theatre. If we all go into a show of the same mind set and spend 2 hours reinforcing that while laughing at the opposition then chances are you'll end up with something that sounds like your Twitter feed rather than a compelling and challenging work of art.
What was the last show that moved you to action?
Not sure it counts as action but 10 minutes after leaving 'The Brothers Size' I was madly writing things down on a napkin. I had that with 'The Believers are but Brothers' and 'Muvvahood' as well.
What shows at VAULT are you looking forward to?
I can't wait to see 'Conquest' by Pear Shaped, 'Wrecked' sounds aces and 'Revelation' should be magic. We'll be in to see 'Follow Suit' and 'A Clown Show About Rain', and a new company, Mulligan, have got a couple of shows at VAULT so we'll be very interested to see what they bring.
Cornermen is on the 7th and 8th March at 6pm (and if you're quick you can catch Follow Suit afterwards!)