Theatre review: Sucker Punch

Posted on: 29 June 2010 by Mark O'haire

Laurence Green reviews Roy Williams’ gripping new play Sucker Punch at the Royal Court Theatre.

I walked along a narrow corridor lined with pictures of prize fights and took my seat ringside. However I had not come to watch a boxing match but to see Roy Williams’ gripping new play Sucker Punch at the Royal Court Theatre (Jerwood Theatre Downstairs) whose stage had been transformed into a boxing ring for the occasion.

The story centres on Leon, a young black boxer growing up in the Britain of the eighties, a place of Thatcherite politics and simmering racial tension. Leon and his friend Troy help out at a London gym run by abrasive white trainer Charlie, and while cleaning the toilets, watch Charlie groom a promising white boxer for stardom. After spotting Leon’s ability in the ring, Charlie switches his attention to the black boxer and he develops into a formidable contender. Meanwhile Troy, for whom the fight does not end in the ring but continues to battle against the racism in the outside world, emigrate to the USA where he becomes a fearless champion, but is exploited by a manipulative, money-obsessed promoter. When the two friends are united in the ring – with Leon Davidson, black British champ or Uncle Tom? in the red corner, and Troy Augustus, American powerhouse or naive cash cow? In the blue corner - it is not only a battle of strength and skill but a showdown between different value systems as the boxers are forced to face up to who they are.

Williams (previous plays: Lift Off, Clubland and Fallout) skilfully develops key aspects of the experience of working class black British youth in the eighties and combines it with themes of male bonding, the significance of defeat and asks if the right battles have been fought, let alone won. The writing has a sinewy power to it, laced with sharp humour and pathos, the characters well defined and the pace tight.

Daniel Kaluuya makes a superb West End debut as Leon, combining anger, eloquence and confusion over his identity, while Anthony Welsh also impresses as Troy, a mixture of swagger, resentment and vulnerability, and Nigel Lindsay exudes an air of true authenticity as the straight talking Charlie.

Furthermore Miriam Buether’s atmospheric set really places us in the centre of the action and makes us feel we have become part of the protagonist’s lives.

This is certainly a play which delivers a knockout punch and for me one of the best of the year.

By Laurence Green

Where: Royal Court Theatre

When: Plays until 24 July 2010

Box Office: 020 7565 5000

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