You can't accuse the Royal Court of doing things by halves: For this boxing-themed show, not only did they send some members of the cast to full-time training for months before rehearsals even started, much like a big-budget movie might, but designer Miriam Buether has also gutted the stalls to rebuild the theatre in traverse, with a raised platform representing a run-down gym, and of course a boxing ring in the middle. The Royal Court did something similar when turning the stage into a catwalk for Wig Out! a couple of years ago, but here the transformation is even more impressive - if, like me, you're in the stalls, you need to cast your eyes up to the familiar brown seats in the circle to actually be sure you're in the Jerwood Downstairs.
Sucker Punch is Roy Williams' take on being black in Britain in the '80s, through the story of a young boxer, Leon (Daniel Kaluuya - understandably the publicity has referenced the fact that he had a recurring role in Skins, but I mainly recognise him as Tea Leaf from Psychoville.) In a series of short scenes spanning the decade, we see him arrive at a gym where Charlie (Nigel Lyndsey) spots his potential and becomes his trainer/manager; he starts a relationship with Charlie's daughter Becky (Sarah Ridgeway) behind his back; goes up against a racist rival (Jason Maza) and defeats him; and falls out with his best friend Troy (Anthony Welsh.) Troy ends up moving to America, and his return provides the play's climax as the two now-successful boxers have their biggest ever fight against each other. Sacha Wares directs and brings a clarity and energy to the play that never lets up. It all rides on Kaluuya and he has no problems carrying the play, he's a dynamic and charismatic leading man who can then turn on a sixpence to be pretty terrifying in the ring when it's called for - after an hour-and-a-half of being charming it's quite the transformation. He's backed up well by the rest of the cast but there's no question whose show this is.
The play paints a pretty bleak picture of race relations - Leon is derided by black boxing fans for what they see as him selling out to white men; despite him being the only boxer not to leave him behind when he hits the big time, Charlie still has less affection for him than for the white boxers; and the only relationship where race is not an issue, that of Leon and Becky, is easily discarded. Ultimately though the politics is a background to the central story, and that is where the play succeeds, and where the Royal Court's decision to go all out has paid off. Also, kudos to Williams and Buether respectively, for avoiding two boxing story clichès that almost every similar story succumbs to: At no point is Leon asked to throw a fight (in fact the very concept of throwing fights is barely alluded to) and, despite the story featuring a brash, black American boxing promoter (Gary Beadle,) he is not made up to look like Don King. A flawed play perhaps, but a spot-on production and a great central performance elevate this to something a bit more than it might have been.
Sucker Punch by Roy Williams is booking until the 31st of July at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.