A boxing club is in full swing, music blaring, as the audience enters the theatre. A young woman is exercising on the ground, while several young men train inside the ring, skip and pummel a punching bag, sweat dripping and flying.

Gideon Mzembe and Pacharo Mzembe. Photo by Brett Boardman

As the lights go down, a young man boxing with a fellow trainee suddenly loses it, temper snapping, and attacks his opponent from behind. Given a good dressing down by Luke (Margi Brown-Ash), a diminutive woman with a shock of white hair who runs the club, we are introduced to Isa (Pacharo Mzembe), a young Congolese refugee now living in Brisbane, who is trying to literally punch his way to a new future.

Prize Fighter is the first full-length play by Congolese-Australian playwright Future D. Fidel. A refugee from East Congo, who fled civil war in 1996, he spent eight years in a Tanzanian refugee camp before being granted refugee status in Australia in 2005 at age 18.

Prize Fighter is semi-autobiographical. Fidel wasn’t a child soldier as Isa turns out to have been, but everything in the play draws on things he has experienced directly or indirectly. With dramaturgy by Chris Kohn, the play premiered at the 2015 Brisbane Festival, staged by La Boite Theatre Company, where it was a big hit.

Margi Brown-Ash and and Pacharo Mzembe. Photo by Brett Boardman

Directed by Todd MacDonald, the production now has a Sydney season, presented by Belvoir in association with Sydney Festival – and it’s a very powerful piece of theatre with an emotional force that builds inexorably as the play unfolds.

Designed by Bill Haycock, the play is staged in a boxing ring where in the middle of training sessions and boxing matches Isa is transported back to Congo as the story of his life unfolds. It’s a harrowing tale with some disturbing, graphic descriptions.

When his adored older brother Moses is sent by their father to study in another town, and his father and sister are subsequently killed in front of him, Isa is forced to become a child soldier at age 10. Taken under the wing of another young man who has been forced to commit a horrific atrocity, he finally escapes.

Eventually, after years in a refugee camp – where there is some welcome light relief in his relationship with a young woman he meets – Isa comes to Australia and becomes a talented boxer fighting for an Australian championship. But there are demons he still has to face.

Gideon Mzembe with Pacharo Mzembe. Photo by Brett Boardman

Running a tight 70 minutes, Prize Fighter is a beautifully constructed play. The shifts between past and present are skilfully handled and the cumulative force of the story-telling is extremely powerful. As Isa returns to Congo to seek forgiveness for a past crime, I was suddenly so emotional I found myself weeping.

There are excellent performances all around: from Pacharo Mzembe as the conflicted Isa, an essentially gentle boy struggling to deal with the horrors of his past, former rugby league player Gideon Mzembe (Pacharo’s brother) as Isa’s brother Moses, boxing opponent and a rebel leader, Margi Brown-Ash as the tough but fair Luke, and Thuso Lekwape, Zindzi Okenyo and Kenneth Ransom in a number of other roles.

Fight director Nigel Poulton has also done a terrific job, as has lighting designer David Walters. All in all, a deceptively powerful piece of theatre that reminds us once again how lucky we are to be in Australia and not live in fear of our lives on a daily basis.

Prize Fighter is at Belvoir St Theatre as part of the Sydney Festival until January 22