The slick precision of this production, from the perceptive writing and unflinching performance through to the quietly effective design, is impressive. That this is matched by an unusual sensitivity and such a strong emotional centre to the story it tells makes this an exceptional piece of work.

A one man show about Flynn, a boxer trying to reconcile his inner world - a love of arts, dance and, as it turns out, men - with the harsh reality of his external surroundings, this is by turns tender, tough, unforgiving and desperately sad.

The set is very simple, just a bench, a sports mat and a punch bag adorning a black, otherwise empty abyss, yet the gentle wisdom of James Gaddas’ script, the subtle but wonderfully effective lighting and Donald Pulford’s imaginative direction creates a very vivid world which is sustained without let up over the 50 minutes of the show. Given its pace, detail, emotional and philosophical depth, this is a seriously impressive achievement.

Against the backdrop of this creative and technical support, Jonny Collis-Scurll delivers a wonderful performance. He is a sharp actor, ahead of every beat and abrupt change in the script, bringing to life an array of characters who fit into Flynn’s narrative, from his gruff father to his flakey and quickly dispatched early girlfriend. As he brings these characters to our attention with a simple change in his vocal register and his evident gift for shifting physicality, Collis-Scurll never loses sight of Flynn as a rich character, bringing great clarity to his longing for tenderness, the damage inflicted on him and his inability to detach himself from the brutality he has been trained to mete out on his opponents, whoever they may be.   

We meet Flynn on the verge of disaster and as he begins to eloquently explain himself we are transported through time and space to the pivotal moments in his story. Here, the sound design in particular helps to suggest changes in place and atmosphere in an entirely unobtrusive way and perhaps this is its greatest strength; despite the wonderful work being done, this production is never self conscious- every element serves the story excellently.

Perhaps the most surprising element of the piece is how effectively the performance space is carved up for each new thread and scene of the story. Within a small square of space, all levels and angles are utilised to create entirely different moods and environments, from the gym, to a nightclub, to the eerie space of a dark street, to the overcrowded sweat-fest of a championship fight. The lithe physicality of Collis-Scurll adds to this as he literally falls into new space, carving up the stage with razor sharp precision, sometime fluid, other times threatening and aggressive but always compelling.

As themes and Flynn’s feelings and experiences are explored so rapidly, we are left breathlessly aware of the conflicts which we all, to a greater or lesser extent, experience; the quick oscillation between his awareness of what he wants to do and what he must do leaves us with a feeling of recognition and transports this play from being a simple situational piece to demonstrating an archetype of human existence - remove the boxing and even the confused sexuality and you are left with an intriguing insight into the human desire to change circumstances and explain and justify behaviour. If this play is not finally simply about the desire to be understood, it is about nothing.

Something needs to be said about James Gaddas, an actor and the talented writer of this piece. His work is packed with import, it is complex, driving the story on whilst weaving in the nitty gritty of boxing life, the deadening despair Flynn feels and the nobility of his struggle to overcome it. It makes perfect sense of the fact that despite his undeniable warmth, and despite his best intentions, Flynn’s circumstances are not resolved to his satisfaction. What he gains in hard won self-respect he loses in his ability to function in the public sphere; it is a high price to pay and is painful to watch, if all too grimly predictable.

The piece shows signs of beginning to lose its way in the last five minutes, where symbolic short cuts begin to take over from the subtle complexities which characterise the rest of the production, but overall the script is tight and to the point and successful in showing Flynn’s sensitivities as well as his toughness. It is a sobering lesson in the destructive power of homophobia and all forms of bullying to reduce and change a person, with no regard for their humanity, to the benefit of no one.

Shadow Boxing, at The AlbanySophie Lieven reviews Shadow Boxing at the Albany.4