The Royale

Marco Ramirez
Bush at the Tabernacle, Notting Hill

Nicholas Pinnock Credit: Helen Murray
Nicholas Pinnock and Franc Ashman Credit: Helen Murray
Jude Akuwudike and Nicholas Pinnock Credit: Helen Murray

During the major refurbishment of its relatively new theatre, the Bush has become peripatetic.

This has some benefits, allowing the choice of space to fit the work. Although it is a converted church, the Tabernacle in Notting Hill could easily be a boxing venue. For this latest in a long line of plays on the noble art, designer Jaime Todd puts a basic (square) ring into the centre of an incongruously well-behaved rather than baying crowd.

Here, during the opening minutes of Madani Younis's stylish production, a young pretender challenges Jay "The Sport" Jackson, the best black boxer in a world that is blind to his kind and portrayed by the suitably muscular Nicholas Pinnock.

The fight is carefully choreographed, which builds tension as the young pretender, Martins Imhangbe's Fish, acquits himself well, losing the bout but winning a job offer. By this point, all of the main male characters have established themselves.

In addition to Jay and his new sparring partner, there is Jude Akuduwike as trainer Wynton and Patrick Drury playing the fighter's white manager / promoter Max, a man with a somewhat crude but silvered tongue.

Jackson is based on Jack Johnson, the legendary black hero, who became the first ever non-white world heavyweight champion so it comes as no surprise to learn that Jay is willing to sacrifice anything, even 90% of the purse, to challenge Champ, Bixby and draw him out of retirement.

So far so good, in what feels like a run of the mill rags to riches boxing melodrama.

What makes The Royale, written by American playwright and journalist Marco Ramirez, something more is the introduction of the dimension of social injustice. As such, the work covers some of the same ground as One Night in Miami..., currently playing at the Donmar Warehouse.

This comes in the form of Franc Ashman playing Jay's feisty sister Nina. She presents a very different side to a story that should be a celebration of Black Pride during the Jim Crow era when lynchings were common in the Deep South where these characters live.

Suddenly, there are as many reasons to lose the fight as win it, since Jackson's crown could literally come at the cost of his fellow's lives in the repercussions that will inevitably follow.

Viewed 100 years on, when a black man is President of the United States, this can feel like a historical piece with little to say to contemporary audiences, but, since racial tensions are still rife on the streets of America today, this slow but intriguing play's popularity a year ago and consequent revival at the new venue seem entirely justified.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher