Mournfully cynical and morally sharp, Cornermen is the tale of a contender: a boxer, an artist of the ring, a challenger with a credible shot at glory. We follow the young Sid Sparks' path from a promising but inconspicuous debut, through the saturation coverage of his title bout and towards the future that lies beyond. But while Sid's a key member of the four-man cast, we never actually see him fight. The action's all viewed through the eyes of others – the men who manage his career, patch up his wounds, and deal with the fallout from his actions.
The developing relationship between Sid and his trainers forms the backbone of Cornermen's plot, and playwright Oliver Forsyth paints a convincing picture of what is, to me, an unfamiliar world. The macho banter between the boxer and his crew is often very funny, but there's an intriguing power game at work too; while trainer Mickey is theoretically in charge, it's the man in the ring who really holds the purse-strings. The £10 advance Mickey hands him at the start clearly won't keep him focussed for very long.
But despite the big-money set-up, and despite the fact that the central character is perpetually taking a pummelling, the stakes never feel quite as high as they want or ought to be. When all's said and done, some mildly likeable people do some mildly disreputable things, and end up experiencing a mild come-uppance as a result. If I were passionate about boxing, then I can easily imagine I'd be shocked by the exposé of the sport's shadier side; but as it is, I never cared quite enough about the characters to be particularly distressed by the machinations surrounding them.
I did enjoy the insights into the tactical guile of the boxer's craft – if nothing else, Cornermen taught me why boxing isn't the same as brawling. And there's a tense excitement to the final, climactic bout, which we experience entirely through glimpses of an exhausted contender and flurries of shouted advice from his team. On the day I attended, these scenes weren't as visceral as they might have been, but we can maybe put that down to the stultifying effect of a very hot venue and a very long Fringe; it's not at all obvious how the fight is going to end and so, taken up a level, this has the potential to be a truly nerve-jangling finale.
Ultimately though, while Cornermen has a strong concept and a well-constructed storyline, I found it lacking a little heart. I wanted to know more about the boxer Sid; to learn about the doubts which surely plague him, and feel the physical courage and reckless confidence it takes to step into the ring. Still, convincing performances from all four actors – especially James Barbour as the trainer Mickey – were enough to keep me engaged throughout the twists and turns of the storyline. So while it wasn't quite a knockout victory on the day I attended, there's no doubt that Smoke & Oakum Theatre can punch their weight at the Fringe.