Until You Hear That Bell

Reviewed by Flossie Waite
Commissioned by and delivered with Battersea Arts Centre
Reviewed at Unicorn Theatre
Playing at Unicorn Theatre until 14th January 2017
For ages 13+

This is spoken word artist Sean Mahoney‘s first full length piece. I can’t wait to see his tenth. Like the punches of his early boxing career, Until You Hear That Bell fails to completely connect, but the 60 minute performance suggests huge potential.

until-you-hear-that-bell-image

Until You Hear That Bell is an autobiographical one-man show about Mahoney’s career as a young boxer, covering a decade of slow progress towards personal and (almost) professional success against a backdrop of family break-up, computer games and GCSEs. Told within timed boxing rounds, both the lyrics and Mahoney’s physicality become more rhythmic and energetic as he gradually finds his feet in boxing. The nervously clenched fists of a boy prone to crying are transformed into the skilled blows of an able amateur boxer, and the sound of cracking knees as he struggles to do press-ups is eventually drowned out by the whipping beat of furiously fast skipping.

Mahoney’s understated, conversational script and delivery feel guileless and unpolished, an appropriate articulation of an awkward, polite and pretty normal boy. But though Mahoney has developed his own voice, it is hard to hear anyone else’s. His performance captures the informal familiarity of a friend telling a story, assuming the people mentioned are mutual acquaintances. No matter the spoken descriptions, little is done verbally or physically to illustrate or differentiate the cast of characters that feature – they remain a long list of names rather than populating the stage.

Though this is Sean’s story, it’s as much about the father watching over and living through him (the ultimate version of shadowboxing) – when Sean wins, it’s his Dad who is mobbed with praise and slaps on the back. Liz Dyer called the play a “powerful piece that will resonate with anyone who’s ever worked hard in pursuit of a dream”, but it’s important to be more specific than that – Until You Hear That Bell is for anyone who’s ever worked hard in pursuit of someone else’s dream. It’s a far more impressive, and difficult, feat to have the patience, motivation and discipline to get extremely good at something you’re not really that bothered about. Ultimately, it’s through Sean’s steady growth as a fighter that he gains the confidence to quit; the young man who now has the potential to turn pro, also has the strength of mind to leave it all and pursue his own interests.

The ending is a little neat, and there are some ideas and themes left half-explored – at first, the play seems to examine gender stereotypes and the concept of masculinity, but this is ultimately shied away from. Still, if the long-term dedication and effort seen in his boxing career is anything to go by, then Mahoney’s future productions will really pack a punch.

Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.

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