Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Sucker Punch

Roy Williams
Royal Court Theatre Downstairs
(2010)

Production photo

Just at the moment, one could easily get the impression that London's artistic directors are fighting each other over who can secure yet another play using Thatcher's Britain as a parallel for the Cameron/Clegg brand of politics.

The latest is Roy Williams' exciting drama set in the tawdry world of boxing. Director Sasha Wares does an outstanding job of taking us into this milieu, with the assistance of a tremendous creative team.

Designer Miriam Buether has turned the theatre into a boxing arena, complete with a blood splattered ring that has massive mirrors on either side, helping to compensate for sightlines that will cause problems to anybody not in the front row.

On this occasion, her efforts are aided by not only a choreographer, Leon Baugh, but also a boxing trainer with tremendous credentials, Errol Christie who was once the European middleweight champion.

Williams' script is necessarily predictable for anyone who knows the genre, showing the rise and fall of plucky Leon Davidson, outstandingly played both as a boxer and man throughout a breathless and at times breathtaking 90 minutes by Daniel Kaluuya.

He and his pal Troy (Anthony Welsh) start life on the wrong side of the tracks, rather stupidly some might suggest, trying to burgle a South London boxing gym. This is run by perennial loser Charlie, given just the right balance between belligerence and desperation by the ever reliable Nigel Lindsay.

His great white hope is Jason Maza's Tommy - that is until Leon throws a single punch and persuades the coach of his ability. He also pulls the boss's daughter, Sarah Ridgeway as bright Becky, before unkindly ditching her at dad's behest.

Underlying the events in the gym in the early scenes are the Brixton riots of 1981 and the endemic racism that led to them. The reactionary Charlie could no more imagine having his daughter going out with a Black boy than let one of his charges throw a fight.

However, he has more serious problems as one of Thatcher's brave new capitalists, gambling his cash not only on developing fighters but also the stock market, with inevitable results as the recession bites.

In some really clever scenes, we are able to witness Leon's rise from obscurity to an Olympic medal and European title before a truly enthralling final contest with his old school chum Troy, now representing his new adopted country, America.

This head-to-head contest is so realistic that it takes time to realise that these two well-balanced opponents are not throwing real punches. By the end of it, one can almost begin to understand the appeal of boxing to devotees both in and out of the ring.

In the arts, the noble art of boxing has long been used as a metaphor for conflict on stage (Clifford Odets' Golden Boy) and more particularly screen (Kid Galahad or Rocky 1 to infinity).

Even though his plotting is heavily schematic, Roy Williams proves yet again that the drama generated in the ring can operate extremely well to illuminate tensions outside, whether these are racial, sexual, economic or part of a complex series of generation games.

With its tremendous production qualities and sporting dramas, Sucker Punch is likely to prove an even bigger success than Leon Davidson. It really is a world beater.

Playing until 24 July

Reviewer: Philip Fisher