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Review Round-up: Sucker Punch a Knockout?

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Critics got a ringside seat at the Royal Court on Saturday (19 June) for the press performance of Roy Williams' Sucker Punch in the reconfigured Jerwood Theatre Downstairs.

The play looks back on “what it was like to be young and black in the 1980s” through the prism of amateur boxing. In the red corner is Leon Davidson – black British champ or Uncle Tom? In the blue corner: Troy Augustus – American powerhouse or naïve cash cow?

It’s directed by Sacha Wares and stars young “actors-turned-boxers” Daniel Kaluuya and Anthony Welsh, who’ve been training under the tutelage of former British boxer and European champ Errol Christie.
  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “The Royal Court has been transformed into a boxing ring for Roy Williams’ new play, Sucker Punch … This amazing transformation by designer Miriam Buether comes at a price. The audience sections are alienated from each other … Williams aims lower than either of those writers, but he lands some telling blows about racism in the early 1980s, Mrs Thatcher (surprise, surprise) and a few jabs about the incipient riots in Brixton and Tottenham … It’s all good fun and should be a riot if it finds its right audience. I just wish Sacha Wares’ dynamic production – with exciting lighting by Peter Mumford and great boxing choreography by Leon Baugh – was as thoroughly audible as it is enjoyably authentic and spirited.”
  • Dominic Maxwell in The Times (four stars) – “Roy Williams’ new play is a punchy piece of work, both literally and figuratively … Figuratively, Williams is out to recapture a decade in which political correctness had yet to become the norm: where Nigel Lindsay’s Charlie could be a good bloke, yet demand that Daniel Kaluuya’s Leon, his main charge, stop seeing his daughter, Becky. Leon is a showman: jumping to James Brown and moonwalking around the ring. He gets hassle from white people for being black, from black people for being an Uncle Tom … As usual with Williams, the dialogue is crisp and bespoke: motives are mixed, nobody is a hero, nothing is just black and white. Lindsay is superb as Charlie, a mix of old-school decency, old-school prejudice and a blinkeredness that is all his own. Welsh is terrific as Troy, reinventing himself with scary conviction as a cool-talking American. And Kaluuya carries the show as Leon."
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Roy Williams, as we know from Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads, is adept at using sport as metaphor … Even if Troy's rise is implausibly rapid, Williams skilfully uses the ring to create a fable about race and money. He shows how Leon and Troy enjoy the illusion of autonomy but are ultimately at the mercy of promoters, for whom they are just meal tickets. Sacha Wares' thrilling staging makes the audience complicit in the process and is rich in telling detail: even the way Leon relies on Charlie to unravel his hand-wraps says everything about the boxer's state of dependence. Aided by superb performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Anthony Welsh as the two fighters and Nigel Lindsay as the racist Charlie, Williams' 90-minute play packs a knockout punch.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “At the heart of Roy Williams’ bracing new play is a performance of piercing intensity by Daniel Kaluuya. As Leon, a young black boxer growing up in the Eighties, Kaluuya combines anger, eloquence, a pained worldliness and a strangely childlike capacity for fantasy … The subject matter is marrowy, and it’s satisfyingly developed in Sacha Wares’ involving, nicely paced staging. The key relationships are intelligently defined and suffused with pathos. There’s agile choreography by Leon Baugh, and Errol Christie’s contribution as the production’s boxing trainer is palpable … The performances are assured. Anthony Welsh’s Troy is a mixture of bluster, resentment and vulnerability … There are a few notes of implausibility, and the ending isn’t exactly heavyweight, but Williams articulates key aspects of the experience of black British youth in the Eighties in a way that feels fresh and authentic.”
  • Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times – “Wares' production is tight and agile. As Leon, the talented actor/ writer/musician Daniel Kaluuya is engaging; Nigel Harman is perfect casting as the ever-pressed Chas; and Trevor Laird has the right kind of appeal as Leon's defiantly feckless father. Roy Williams is an expert at writing about racism in sport: he has dealt with it among fans in his breakthrough play Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads and among football players in There's Only One Wayne Matthews! and Joe Guy … This is where my reservations lie: apart from the subject of boxing, I cannot rid myself of the feeling that Williams has done all this before, even the 1980s setting. Williams is smart and eloquent, and he has more to say than this."
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) – “The main house at the Royal Court has been spectacularly transformed into a boxing club for this bruising new play by Roy Williams, for my money the undisputed heavyweight champion of black British dramatists … The fights themselves are thrilling. Even though no punches actually connect - the actors would surely be hospitalised if they did - the movement is so brilliantly choreographed that you still experience the visceral, guilty excitement that a good boxing match always generates … Director Sacha Wares builds up the tension in a gripping, interval-free, 90-minute production and Miriam Buether’s wonderfully authentic, venue-transforming design is a terrific coup … A big shout out, too, to choreographer Leon Baugh and boxing trainer Errol Christie, who have also played a part in making this hard-hitting drama such a theatrical knock-out.”
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