thu 31/07/2014

Sucker Punch, Royal Court Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

Sucker Punch, Royal Court Theatre

Roy Williams's latest play, set in the 1980s, is a punchy drama about boxing and racism

Roy Williams takes us into the ring in a Thatcher-era Raging Bull
Roy Williams takes us into the ring in a Thatcher-era Raging BullChris Nash
The poster for Sucker Punch, Roy Williams's ambitious new play about boxing and race during the schism-prone age of Margaret Thatcher, promises a sort of black British Raging Bull: There in one graphic image are the blood and sweat, the bravado and the pain, of a sport that for self-evident reasons makes it to the stage relatively rarely. How do you set actors' juices flowing eight times a week (and risk their jawbones dislocating) in a way that the cinema can manage with comparative ease? One answer arrived at by the director Sacha Wares is to ramp up the atmosphere, in conjunction with a designer, Miriam Buether, who evidently never met a space that she hasn't wanted in some way or other to transform.To that effect, the Court's downstairs theatre has been reconfigured for the run, resulting in the loss of 50 or so seats but allowing a playhouse that is no stranger to dramas set in a highly specific milieu - Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen, for instance - to become the very boxing ring in and around which the action takes place. Spectators in the circle look down on a play whose combat takes place on multiple fronts: not just between two black English boxers, one of whom comes to prominence in America, but between the fighters and their managers. Between parents and children. And, yes, between black and white.

If that sounds like a lot to encompass in 95 minutes (no interval), a certain compression and overreliance on dramatic ellipses are the stumbling blocks of a play that is otherwise as punchy as one might expect from its topic. The narrative, too, demands that its actors make convincing their move with daunting speed from the anonymity of some fractious south London sparring to an international canvas that finds two one-time mates giving it their 11th-hour adversarial all.

The lads' circumstances may change - one of them ends up in a penthouse apartment overlooking the Arndale Centre - but the allure of the ring remains throughout in a script that one could easily imagine resurfacing on the small screen, as Williams's fiery 2003 Court entry, Fallout, did before it. On TV, one assumes, there would be no need for the amplification apparent on stage: bizarrely, wires are here seen snaking up two of the actors' backs, Daniel Kaluuya bearing the brunt of numerous monologues that move the story on.




At the outset, it's difficult to see the glory of an endeavour in which the loser "cleans the bog and the winner mops the floors". Chums seeking refuge from the escalating tensions of a world whose collisions occasionally spill over into their south London gym, Troy (Anthony Welsh) and Leon (Kaluuya) find themselves under the tutelage of a heavy-drinking white trainer, Charlie, played by Nigel Lindsay with a bonhomie that conceals bitterness and rancour just beneath the surface.

Charlie, himself a fighter in his day, has a daughter, Becky (Sarah Ridgeway, an alumna of Williams's brilliant Days of Significance), who becomes a subject of banter - and object of barter - between the two young men whose own parents loom large, even when unseen. Troy, we're given to understand, has inherited his nervy, chippy attitude - he holds the white man responsible for everything - from a loose cannon of a dad, while Leon's apparently genial father, Squid, is a womanising smoothie in constant need of cash. Trevor Laird is at once engaging and suitably pathetic in a role that sees Squid staring balefully at banknotes flung by Leon on to the stage but not before cautioning his son. "You'll be just another worthless black man like me," he says by way of a bruising parting shot, in one of many remarks that strike as mercilessly as any body blow.

Sucker Punch, indeed, is most acute in its anatomy of need: a white boxer, Tommy (Jason Maza), seen briefly near the beginning, depends for drugs on the same black community that he is quick to disparage. Charlie, in turn, clearly sees Leon as a meal ticket of sorts but speaks a tough love that at one genuinely shocking moment turns to hate in an admission that chills the house.

Beyond the boxing arena, the talk is of scuffles with policeman and life on the estate; inside the ring lies an opportunity for bravura and self-knowledge, whether that consists of the self-described "Leon shuffle" or, in context, the most important realisation of all: "I know who I am." Williams knows what he's writing, and does it well, in an unusual drama that one almost wishes were longer so that its plot could be teased out more fully. Still, not many plays serve up political commentary, domestic drama (unravelling his bandages late on, Leon could as well be severing an umbilical cord), and blood sport in quick succession. And if the actors take their bows without half their face hanging off in the best DeNiro tradition, well, tomorrow's another play. The show, like the gloves, must go on.

Watch a fight clip from Raging Bull



"You'll be just another worthless black man like me," he says in one of many remarks that strike as mercilessly as any body blow

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