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Sucker Punch review at Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs

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Roy Williams’ new play dramatically reconfigures this famous theatrical arena to take us close to the heat, sweat and bloodiness of a centre stage boxing ring.

It also takes us back to the eighties, the time of the Brixton and later the Tottenham riots and – a name which needs no surname, and is never far from the lips of the admiring white gym proprietor and boxing coach, Charlie – Maggie.

Leon and Troy don’t care much about conventional politics though. Two black youths, they only came to the gym to make amends for a failed break-in but Charlie (Nigel Lindsay) takes them under his wing and they both prove able boxers, much to the disgust of the bigoted aspirant fighter Tommy.

But despite initial signs of open-mindedness, Charlie then lives out the adage that he wouldn’t want them marrying his daughter (played here by Sarah Ridgeway). Should Leon and Troy stay with Charlie? And if they do, what does this say about them?

Williams’ text is crammed with incident and bracing humour and a times the prejudice cracks through the dialogue like thunder, a chilling reminder that such vile racism was very much alive during the eighties.

It’s especially creepy when Charlie calls Leon “Lenny Henry” – a reminder both of the casual and throwaway nature of prejudice at the time, but also that the comedian was perhaps the only showbusiness role model available to black people in those days.

Elsewhere, though, this feels more like a workshopped exploration of profoundly important “ishoos” than a clinically realised piece of stagework.

Despite the oft-repeated eighties references, it has a bizarrely inauthentic ring. It’s not just with all the references to Our Price and politics and the superbly realised fashions (costume supervisor Jackie Orton must have had a great time) – some of the banter sounded a little too stilted, a little too Grange Hill to my ears.

Williams appears to have swallowed an almanac from the period before thinking about what he is saying with his play.

Lines about white people enjoying the spectacle of two black men beating each other up in a boxing ring are hardly new, and Williams’ point about the decisions made and battles fought by Leon and Troy are never really clear.

Is he saying that Leon gave up the fight because he stayed while Troy was right to leave and seek fame in the US?

Still the performances are excellent (most especially from Daniel Kaluuya who is a mesmerisingly compelling Leon) and Leon Baugh’s boxing choreography takes your breath away. But this is more parable than play and as such punches a little too below its weight.

Production Information

Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, June 11-July 31

Author
Roy Williams
Director
Sacha Wares
Producer
Royal Court
Cast includes
Nigel Lindsay, Daniel Kaluuya, Anthony Welsh, Sarah Ridgeway, Trevor Laird
Running time
1hr 40mins

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