★ ★ ★ ★ ★
A magnificent mix of stand-up, theatre and memoir which packs a powerful punch.
Last year, as part of his sketch group BEASTS, James McNicholas performed only a handful of nights at the Fringe alongside Owen Roberts and eventual Best Newcomer winner Ciarán Dowd. This year James is performing his first solo hour The Boxer for the entire run.
With Eye of the Tiger playing as audiences take their seats and James starting the hour in character as a boxer wearing a Lonsdale tracksuit and hand wraps, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a show about boxing that will only speak to fans of boxing. But of course it isn't.
It's a story about love, family and determination. It's the story of James' grandfather Terry Downes, the 1961 world middleweight boxing champion, nicknamed the 'Paddington Express’ who retired at the age of 28 and went on to star in movies including A Study in Terror in 1965 alongside Barbara Windsor.
In fact, James admits that everything he knows about boxing he learnt by watching movies about the sport and noticing how they're all structured the same way. They begin with 'The Promise', then there's 'The Rise' and 'The Fall' followed by 'The Rally' and 'The Resolution' and that's how he has decided to structure his show.
The Boxer sees James switch between actor and stand-up throughout. As an actor he's very much his grandfather, portraying him so brilliantly that you leave feeling like you really knew him. But it's when James is himself that the show is at its most powerful as he opens up about his insecurities with regards to the amount he's achieved in the relatively short space of time it took Terry to become world champion.
Archive footage of his grandfather and grandmother and recent audio from Barbara talking about her late husband is a lovely touch and really helps audiences realise just how deeply personal this story really is. A story which builds to a sensational climax, the emotion of which takes the audience by surprise.
The hour is entirely original, not fitting neatly into one particular genre and all the better for it. It's unlike anything I've seen at this year's festival - a magnificent mix of stand-up, theatre and memoir which packs a powerful punch, full of clever dialogue, wonderful use of language and inventive punchlines.
The famous saying is "to throw one's hat into the ring" and there's clear evidence here to prove that James has thrown much more than just his hat into his debut hour, he has poured his heart and soul into it. Serving as a beautiful tribute to his grandfather, it feels like now was the perfect time for James to tell this story and I'm so pleased that he did and that I was there to listen to it.
James McNicholas: The Boxer runs until 25th August at 4:15pm at the Pleasance Courtyard (Bunker Two). Book tickets here.