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Walk Hard - Talk Loud

Abram Hill
Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn
(2005)

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It has taken some time, but 61 years after it first took to the stage Walk Hard-Talk Loud by African-American writer Abram Hill finally has its British Premiere.

This drama is the first in Nicolas Kent's ambitious trilogy of Black American plays for which he has brought together a fixed company of actors.

In some ways, we are in Rocky territory, as seemingly the only way out of the Depression for down-at-heel New Yorkers, especially "colored" ones, is the fight game.

The play opens by introducing us to Andy Whitman, a shoeshine boy with a mean left hook. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith plays the handsome teenager who is taken up by big Mack, a real loser of a boxing promoter, played by Mac McDonald.

Initially, neither the young man, his ambitious father (Joseph Marcel) who believes in college education, his grandmother (Carmen Munroe) or his girlfriend Ruth (Ony Uhiara) are all that certain about a career in which the boy might get his head knocked off.

To make things worse, Andy is a proud man who will not accept the standards of his day. Demean his race or ban him from a hotel and the odds are that he will lay you out. Unfortunately, the Black Power movement was still thirty years away and attitudes such as his would inevitably lead to trouble.

That trouble comes in the shape of greasy, racist promoter, Lou Foster, who has the whole neighbourhood sewn up and will stand for no nonsense from any fighter, let alone a black one.

After the play's high point, when Andy finally gives Foster his comeuppance, it seems that the young fighter's career is over forever. However, the playwright, with a little assistance from the Boxing Commission, pulls a rabbit out of his hat and comes up with an improbably happy and moral ending, signalled by an unlikely speech from young Ruth.

The set designed by Mike Britton is impressive and very flexible. Its major structure is a set of railway arches but beneath these he brings in minimalist props from the wings that create memorable images, none more so than a hotel reception and a boxing ring.

While its heart is undoubtedly in the right place and it is good to see the black community represented positively on stage, this is neither the greatest play nor the best of productions.

Abram Hill writes unevenly and varies between clichéd and flowery prose in his efforts to portray his characters and achieve his didactic conclusion.

Nicolas Kent is well served by his leading actors but some of the support relies too much on caricature, none more so than the gigantic Stephen Beckett, playing a womanising boxing champ with an incredibly irritating laugh.

The best thing about Walk Hard-Talk Loud is the way in which it stands toe-to-toe with overt racism and delivers the knockout punch that it so richly deserves. For that reason, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith's spunky effort as Andy, this long-delayed British premiere should be warmly welcomed.

Playing until 24th December

Reviewer: Philip Fisher