A riveting exploration of race and boxing in 1980s Britain.
My life is such that barely a week goes by without my attending at least one theatre performance. Spoiler alert: this is one of the best plays I've seen in the last year.
Sucker Punch, written by Roy Williams, is at Curve until Saturday, April 29. A Theatre Nation Partnerships production, produced by Queen's Theatre Hornchurch, it was directed by Nathan Powell.
Earlier this year, I attended Curve's season preview, where I saw Powell discuss the play. I must confess, had I not heard him speak about it, I probably wouldn't have given it a second glance. Yet Powell spoke with such passion about the project, I made a note to request Niche's review tickets, and I'm so glad I did. I also ended up sat right behind the director for this performance, but by the end, was too in awe to introduce myself.
The play is set in a run-down boxing gym in 1980s' London. Our central character is Leon (Shem Hamilton), a young black man who attempted to break into the gym - alongside friend Troy - only to be caught by the owner, Charlie, and hired to clean the gym to make amends. It soon becomes clear that Leon has some boxing talent of his own, and Charlie starts training him. What follows is Leon's rise to the top of British, European, and world boxing.
However, none of that is what it's actually about. This play is about conflict. This is presented most overtly through the boxing, offering actual, physical exchanges as characters come to blows. Yet every character has conflict with at least one other, if not within themselves.
Charlie (magnificently portrayed by Liam Smith) is quite openly racist, but he recognises Leon as his ticket to success and trains him regardless. Yet a line is crossed for him when Leon starts sleeping with his daughter, Becky. He is in a constant battle for survival against every external force he could imagine, whether that be changing attitudes he's not equipped for, financial pressures, his daughter's expectations, or the desertion of his prize fighters.
Becky (Poppy Winter) battles with her father, trying to save him from his own worst impulses - poor financial choices and alcoholism - but also wrestles between her own love for Leon and societal pressures of whom she should and shouldn't date.
Leon's dad, Squid (Wayne Rollins), wants to support his son, but is too self-involved and irresponsible to do it effectively. He clashes with Charlie, as family are unwelcome in the gym, but its his own gambling and womanising that drives the biggest wedge between him and Leon. Rollins delivers one of the most memorable performances in the play.
Leon's friend Troy (Christian Alifoe) battles with everyone, yet his conflict comes from a lack of belonging. Where should he be? In the gym, or not? In the ring, or not? In London, or not? He ultimately finds a whole new persona when he moves to America, and becomes Leon's final test.
Leon himself has conflict with everyone, but perhaps more so than the others, it comes from a place of love. He views Charlie as a father figure, but clashes with him constantly. He's frustrated by his own father's irresponsibility. He loves Becky but is hurt by her saying that "he's only a bit of fun".
Yet it's the conflict within Leon that really defines this play. His own sense of identity battles against itself. He struggles to stand by Troy against the police during the riots, choosing to save himself and his reputation rather than get involved in a beating. He reluctantly gives up Becky in order to continue his boxing career. He tries to stand by Charlie when all sense says to give up on him. And he fights with himself over whether he should be viewed as a black British sporting icon, or entertainment for the white masses. He's the only character who believes he can be both.
It's a fantastic central performance from Hamilton, who - even when Leon is at his most egotistical - never strays into unlikability. This is true for the whole cast; these are flawed - occasionally awful - characters, but there's a certain nobility to each of them. Additionally, John Rogers, who plays Tommy and becomes Leon's first challenge, and Ray Strasser-King's Ray, who becomes one of his final obstacles, make an impact - both actors only really appear in one half each, but both inject energy and pace at exactly the right time.
When I'm teaching improv workshops, I always tell students to avoid getting into argument or conflict scenes, because they tend to burn out very quickly and leave you with nowhere to go. Yet this play is the exception to that rule - the various conflicts sustain the drama for all two hours, and runs at a breathless pace. Yet it's funny too. I've made this sound like a hard-hitting drama - and it is - but there's plenty of laughs throughout, which are much needed to distract from the weight of everything else.
The play is immaculately staged, with all the action taking place in or around the gym's ring. Only one part of the set changes (Charlie's office becomes the viewing gallery for Leon's fights), but this allows Powell to keep all eyes on the story. Like a boxer who's getting into fighting shape, there's not an ounce of fat on this production. Everything serves the narrative or the character dynamics.
The boxing matches are cleverly choreographed - even when it's only Leon in the ring - with the combined efforts of movement director, Asha Jennings-Grant, fight director, Enric Ortuño, and boxing coach, Gary Cooke, used to great effect.
Even if your instinct would be to say, "I've no interest in a play about boxing", I'd urge you to give this a go. It's beautifully acted, brilliantly staged, and carries enough emotional punch to keep you invested throughout.
See this if you can.