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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Royal Court Theatre


  Anthony Welsh and Daniel Kaluuya/ Ph: Chris Nash

Blood, sweat, spit: The atmosphere is thick with the salty tang of bodily fluids and charged with testosterone. The audience enters through a corridor lined with yellowing press cuttings of past sporting glories. We sit in two opposing banks around a real boxing ring, which is walled on opposite sides by floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The blows, wranglings, defeats and glories of the fighters are multiplied in their reflected images. This is a gladiatorial combat of bruising realities and elusive ideals, where the personal and the political collide headlong, and where the brutal realities of the streets are echoed by, and channeled into, the punch, dodge and feint of the professional pugilist.
Roy Williams has tackled the sports milieu before, in 2002’s Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads, where a televised football match became the site of debate about race and nationalism. But with Sucker Punch, he flings us into the thumping heart of the action. And Sacha Wares gives his play a production of exhilarating spectacle. Miriam Buether’s design is faultlessly, pungently authentic, and the acting, from a cast led by Daniel Kaluuya and Anthony Welsh as two school friends turned adversaries, is every bit as convincing as Williams’ characteristically piquant and acutely observed dialogue.
It’s the 1980s, and Leon (Kaluuya) and Troy (Welsh) hang around Charlie’s downbeat West London gym, mopping up, cleaning the toilets and picking up what they can about boxing. Outside in Thatcher’s Britain, there are riots, the angry fallout from the notorious Sus laws, and a burgeoning self-centred loadsamoney culture. Inside, there’s the naked, casual racism of Charlie (Nigel Lindsay) and of his newest protégé Tommy (Jason Maza) to contend with – not to mention the tentatively flowering romance between Leon and Charlie’s perky, daddy’s-girl daughter Becky (Sarah Ridgeway). But when Charlie’s business looks like it's being destroyed by the changing economic situation and rising star Tommy’s desertion, Leon thinks he spots an opportunity. He becomes Charlie’s new “boy” – the boxer who just might make both their names and their fortunes. For Troy, though, the constant racist corrosion is intolerable, and after one violent incident too many, his mother ships him out to live in with his father in the United States. When the pair meets again, it’s with their gloves on, in a vital title fight. But with Troy’s blinged-up, fur-coated black trainer bullying him and calling him “bitch,” and Leon having made it this far only by suffering the ignorance of his trainer and the taunts of racist crowds – and by sacrificing his relationship with Becky – can there be any real winners here?
The writing is rich with irony and contradiction. Boxing is seen both as a means of getting ahead for black youth, and as a deeply troubling form of voyeurism for white people who, as Leon’s disapproving dad Squid says, “love nuttin’ better than to see two black men beat up on each other.” Charlie is a toxic father figure to Leon, but Squid, who chases white women and drinks and gambles away his son’s wages, is no role model either. And the pursuit of money and fame, as well as the enduring evil of racism – albeit in more insidious form – have a fierce 21st century relevance.
There are loose ends and patches of under-development. The love story in particular feels schematic, and the weak ending hardly lands a killer blow. But Wares’ production is so electrifying that the whole is triumphantly theatrically effective. The leads have been drilled by 1983 European boxing champion Errol Christie and choreographer Leon Baugh, and the results are stunning: dazzling boxing bouts that are both ferociously elegant and grittily real. And the language is crammed with nuance and jabs of nimble, angry wit. Blunt, tough and viscerally thrilling.

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