THEATRE / Packing a spectacular punch: Paul Taylor on Kerry Shale's boxing drama The Set-Up at the Gate

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The Independent Culture
Like listening to a boxing match on the radio, sitting through The Set-Up, Kerry Shale's one-man show at The Gate, will give sensitive types, who'd pass out at the suspicion of a nose-bleed, the chance to get a gore-free buzz from a bloodsport.

Set in New York City in 1925, the piece is adapted from the narrative poem (published four years later) by Joseph Moncure March. A hard-bitten urban ballad, it chronicles the last fight fought by a black boxer called Pansy Jones (with a name like which you'd better be good with your fists). Held back by his race from prize-fighting heights, and having spent several years of his prime in prison on a trumped-up charge, a diminished Pansy is now set up as the fall guy in a rigged contest. A pity, though, that the bent managers didn't let him in on this little secret, since Pansy is not yet out for the count . . .

There was a time quite recently when most solo shows seemed to involve actors impersonating celebrated writers (Sassoon, Boswell, Woolf, Wilde etc), with the result often resembling an edition of With Great Pleasure in which the star-presenter has somehow neglected to choose bits by anyone else. Instead of offering a costumed trot through some old belles-lettres, Kerry Shale's show confronts you with an experience that's more like being accosted by a stocky, streetwise and intense New York equivalent of The Ancient Mariner. Or, quite often, like hearing a Bob Dylan ballad. The programme prints a snatch from 'Hurricane', his song based on the trial of a black, middle-weight boxer, and listening to the slangy-urgent, rubbery-voiced drive Shale gives to the story, you're reminded, from time to time, of Dylan-esque delivery.

A miniaturised boxing ring, scuffed mirrors, a locker, fight posters: John Abbott's production doesn't need much in the way of sets. Where atmosphere is concerned, the poem has its own built-in scratch 'n' sniff cards, not to say sensurround, as it hustles you from smoky dive to poxy changing room, to a fight audience so unrefined that to wear a collar in their midst would be tantamount to suicide. 'The all-star arena reeked of age / It smelled like the bottom of a monkey cage', 'Crowds were to Pansy as heat is to hell / They made him feel fine, they suited him well'. Immediate, huh? Shale relishes all this and also makes a powerful job (both vocally and physically) of the lightning switches in the poem between eye-witness involvement (and compassion) and the hard-boiled, B-movie laconicism the speaker falls back on. Shale's extraordinary talent for mimicry populates the piece with croaky Jewish and Italian managers, cagy behind sickly rictus smiles. Neanderthal-voiced Irish boxers; the spectators with their cartoon-y nasal bray and wonderful heckle lines, 'Say, do you guys room together?' Dragging the numbers out in an uncanny, faraway slur, Shale can make you feel you're down on the canvas listening, as though from another planet, to the count.

Though modern sensibilities may recoil at one or two of the lines about Pansy ('He made you think / Of the missing link'), the poem gives racism a well-deserved, if unsubtle, bashing. Crass, then, of Hollywood to re-shape the part for a white actor in the 1949 movie version. The ludicrous happy ending (badly mugged boxer and his girlfriend embrace in the gutter: 'We both won tonight]') is printed in the excellent programme which also has a section of quotes about fighters and writers (the latter often fascinated by the former, though rarely vice-versa). A nice story about Philip Larkin is not included. After watching a crummy bout between amateurs at Hull, he's said to have murmured: 'Only connect.'

The Gate, W11 (071 229 0706) to 20 Feb