PUGILISM fuses with pacifism in Siobhan Nicholas's White Feather Boxer, a vibrant new boxing drama that asks: What does it take to be better than the best? To stand up for what you believe?

Presented by Take The Space on tour at the York Theatre Royal Studio tomorrow night (November 24), the play was previewed last year to mark the centenary of the 1916 “Conscription” laws.

Writer-director Nicholas sets White Feather Boxer in April 1967 in a shabby Bethnal Green boxing gym, where elderly trainer Jimmy (played by Chris Barnes) hears the news that heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali has defied the US Military by refusing to fight in Vietnam.

This is a story Jimmy knows all too well. As a Quaker boxer, he had made a choice during the First World war, when conscription sent pacifists to prison or the firing squad; at the peak of his boxing career and physical prowess, he refused to fight for King and Country despite the awful consequences.

"Jimmy still can’t face his demons from the past and now there’s a new one from the present: Jo (Julia Masli), a Polish immigrant who lives on the local estate," says Siobhan, outlining her play. "Just turned 16, Jo’s strong, talented, impulsive, angry and, given the chance, potentially a brilliant boxer, but she’s a girl and Jimmy is 70 now. Has he the strength, or even the patience, to coach this wild young teenager and teach her discipline and respect?"

Explaining the theme of her fifth play for Take The Space, she says: "I wanted to explore – and honour – the psyche of the boxer and also capture the culture of the ring; I had a hunch that focusing on a retired boxer who has a very personal association with conscientious objection could allow me to come close to defining the qualities of bravery and duty, especially as I've met a few Quakers in my life, who are incredible people."

Several influences converged for Siobhan to write White Feather Boxer. "I'd been reading about conscientious objectors, having earlier done a history degree, and it's interesting to see what's left out of history," she says.

"Growing up in Ireland, my dad told me about how he'd been a boxer in his youth in Derry, where boxing crossed the divide, with Catholic boys meeting Protestant boys, and he talked about discipline and the strength it gave him from following rules, which he said was a bit like life training. He was very much into Muhammad Ali and I remember sitting on his knee as we watched Ali on the box.

"Weirdly, Chris [Barnes] was a boxer too and we have a picture of him training for a play by Michael Bogdanov called Johnny Boxer. So all these images were floating around in my head.

"So my idea was that if you had the bravest of sports and the most courageous of ideals [conscientious objection], where you could never accuse either of them of cowardice, then I had a play in the making, though it seemed like a flight of fancy, especially as my father said 'you'll never find a Quaker who was a boxer', but I did."

Take The Space presents White Feather Boxer, York Theatre Royal Studio, tomorrow, November 24, 7.45pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk