DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Sucker Punch – Theatre Royal Wakefield

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Writer: Roy Williams

Director: Nathan Powell

Roy Williams has a rare talent for exploring the odd corners of racism and delivering his message in an explosive form that carries the audience full tilt into the next confrontation while still preserving the detachment to find humour in the characters. Thus, inSucker Punch, set in the 1980s, we have out-and-out racism in the white boxer who sees the two black kids as contaminating the gym – interestingly, they have to clean the toilets and find white men’s mess disgusting! But, apart from this, there are the feckless black father sponging on his son, the gym owner whose admiration for the black boxer’s skill provides a flimsy cover for his racism, the black boxer who is accused of Uncle Tomming because of his desire to be accepted by the white patrons, and the black American fight manager who owns his boy as much as any white man.

At the beginning trainer Charlie is working with his promising amateur Tommy, the latest in a series of fighters Charlie has brought on, only for them to desert him. Two black youths, Troy and Leon, are cleaning out the place after being discovered breaking in, their zest for life apparent in every move. Charlie takes them on, but Troy goes missing after failing to show for a fight because of a confrontation with the police. Leon goes from strength to strength, from title to title, destroys the abject racist Tommy in the ring, but endangers his relationship with Charlie by his involvement with Becky, his daughter. Troy leaves for America, but not before he has fallen out with Leon over his flight from the action in the Brixton riots.

When Troy, now a successful boxer, returns from America, all these tensions are resolved by one fight – except that they are not – there are still conclusions to be reached. The journey to that point is vividly expressed in vibrant, frequently overlapping dialogue, the caption screens a necessary help, even though sometimes they can’t keep pace.

Outstanding among seven thoroughly committed players is Shem Hamilton as Leon, always balancing sensitivity with arrogance, the latter predominating as he becomes more and more successful – an Aston Martin, no less! Liam Smith is perpetually troubled as Charlie, concealing his fondness for alcohol and failed investments behind his barked orders. Christian Alifoe’s Troy is a mix of anger and sullenness, always ready to explode.

John Rogers’ Tommy looks a touch too old, but every word, every gesture, expresses his contempt for blacks; Poppy Winter is a spirited Becky; Ray Strasser-King is as brash as anyone could wish as the American manager; Wayne Rollins is hugely entertaining as Squid, Liam’s father, but makes clear the exploitation behind the comedy.

Nathan Powell’s production for Queens Theatre, Hornchurch, for Theatre Nation Partnerships is tense and explosive, with Duramaney Kamara’s sound design ratcheting up the tension. Sandra Falase sets the whole thing in a boxing gym: ring, pics and posters on the walls, stairs leading up to Charlie’s office. A small audience at Wakefield was totally involved, step by step, in Leon’s journey.

Runs until 27th May 2023, then continues touring.

The Reviews Hub Score

Vibrant, explosive

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The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East

The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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