I confess: I’ve seen and reviewed I’m Your Man before. I came back for more. Same again, please. And I got it. The old one-two. Well, not that old, having been originally staged at Belvoir St, downstairs, early last year. Given that it’s entirely possible for me to see five or six productions in almost any given week, the fact that this one has lived so vividly in my memory (not much does, these days) for that long is testimony in itself to its exceptional quality.
Created and directed by Roslyn Oades, its comeback is as laudable as Big George’s hiatus of 20 years as heavyweight champion of the world. It’s actually the final instalment in a trilogy, having been preceded by Stories of Love & Hate and Fast Cars & Tractor Engines. The linking theme is courage and all are verbatim; the actuality being communicated to the actors via headphones. Suffice to say, I don’t think you need to have seen the first two episodes to appreciate the last.
Oades stated objective for this work was to “capture adrenaline on tape” and, if I’m Your Man does nothing else, it does this. If I’m to be honest, I must confess even an avowed anti-sportsman such as I can’t help but be caught up in the recreated pre-fight rev-up and I would’ve sworn I was impervious to such hypnosis, which is close to what it is. And when I say verbatim, I mean verbatim: the method insists the actors emulate every pause, hesitation, stutter, stammer and idiosyncrasy of the colourful boxing identity previously recorded, as they dish out virtual monologues (though ruthlessly edited) to the audience. The result is a series of totally engaging, authentic portraits of everyone from world featherweight champ Billy “The Kid” Dibb to Jeff Fenech, Wally Carr, Oyewale Omotoso, Billy McPherson, Gus Mercurio, Tony Mundine and a relative unknown east-ender we know only as CJ. Of course, you’ll have to really know your boxing to recognise all these names.
Neil Simpson has achieved something remarkable with the set, which closely resembles the down-at-heel, sweat-drenched ambience one imagine prevails in a typical boxing gym. Despite the cavernous space that is Bay 20, at Carriageworks, he manages to make us feel a part of it. His hard lighting further cements the uncompromising aesthetic. Movement director Lee Wilson ensures the entire performance is almost like a dance; a veritable boxing ballet. The script is taut and tough, too, thanks to dramaturgy by Raimondo Cortese. But it’s the cast that really brings it home: Michael Mohammed Ahmad; Katia Molino; Billy McPherson; Justin Rosniak and John Shrimpton.
Dibb was trailed by Oades and co over a high-pressured 18 months, during which he was angling for his IBF title belt. The intensive research enables us to get as well-and-trult under his skin and inside his head as the producers probably did. The striking thing (no pun intended) about him is his magnetism, undiminished even in big-noting himself. Despite the lust for inflicting damage to which he candidly admits, he exudes a certain innocence. In short, he’s immensely likeable; or at least made so by Ahmed, a Bankstown native and, clearly, a passionate boxer himself. In Dibb, we see a blueprint for success: his mental preparation is every bit as thorough and painstaking as his physical training. We also learn that a smart boxer knows how to tune his mind for time inside the ring, by creating a persona, much the same as an actor might. But not all boxers are as endearing, congenial or charismatic as Dibb.
John Shrimpton plays Wale “Lucky Boy” Omotoso, a Nigerian-born welterweight now living in Melbourne. His motivations contrast strongly with Dibb’s. He’s keen to impress his parents, even though they’re no longer around. It’s as important for him to honour them and it is to lend his brother a hand. It’s also clear he has no sense of real confidence or inner security and, why would you, growing-up in on the anything goes streets of Lagos? He hasn’t dubbed himself Lucky Boy for nothing (it’s tattooed on his chest). He’s lucky to be alive. Shrimpton, though as white as a northern winter, makes a damn good fist (oops!) of LB’s accent and mannerisms; so much so we almost see him as a black man.
Rosniak plays the boastful, loudmouthed, coarse and cranky Fenech almost too well. Personality-wise, “The Marrickville Mauler” is almost the polar opposite of Dibb: charmless and boofheaded. But no one can deny his achievements, even if the three-time world champion wears them with repellant immodesty. The point is, Rosniak nails him, right down to his garbled diction. He is just as effective, if not moreso, in his depiction of the gravel-voiced Gus Mercurio (dancer, actor and foodie Paul’s father), probably best known to older Australian audiences as a character actor, especially in film and television. Boxing remained a passion, however, and his abiding interest was manifest in his roles as ref, judge and president of the ANBF (Australian National Boxing Federation, for the uninitiated); fitting, given his previous life as a pro in the US. Mercurio espouses an holistic philosophy built in the ring, epitomised in the fundamental motto, “hands up, head down”.
The most courageous and inspired casting of all, perhaps, is Molino, principally as CJ (a number of the actors play more than one role), a streetfighter who’s only real option is to box, so as to keep it legal. Not the sharpest tool in the shed, he recapitulates a ferocious assault perpetrated against a small group of black men, their colour seeming to have been his prime motivation for attack. Chillingly, his defence and narrative is much like George Zimmerman’s. He relates this with almost irrepressible pride. As with Shrimpton virtually changing colour before our very eyes, we cease to see Molino as a woman, such is her absorption of the character she’s playing.
Speaking of Shrimpton, he’s also outstanding and loveable as the soft-hearted, hard-fisted Tony Mundine, father and trainer to Anthony and young Kiwi cruiserweight, Dave Aloua (Molina, who endows him with a social awkwardness both familiar and amusing). Mundine, as we learn, still has an eye and a lot of time for young ladies and remains a cheeky, yet shy, old-school charmer.
Billy McPherson does a great job of impersonating Wally “Wait-a-while Wal” Carr, an advisor to the production and present on opening night. Wal’s tough-mindedness doesn’t prevent him from admitting to doing things the wrong way ’round: “I gave up drinking and smoking after I stopped fighting.” It doesn’t seem to have held him back too much: one-hundred-and-one fights and a Guinness record (which seems more than vague appropriate) for fighting in more divisions than any other boxer.
As a sidelight, the training the cast has done to effect the physical capacities of the athletes the actors play, which is exemplified throughout the work, is mightily impressive in its own right.
Even if you hate boxing as passionately as these blokes dote on it, what’s not to love about this production? It’s the sort of show that can catch you right off-guard and land a surprising blow. To the heart.
The details: I’m Your Man plays the Performance Space, CarriageWorks until July 20 — tickets on the venue website. A national tour takes in Perth, Mandurah, Adelaide, Hobart, Darwin, Brisbane, Melbourne, Wodonga and returning to Sydney in September — more information on the Belvoir St website.