Review by Sam Waite
First opening at the Royal Court in 2010, Sucker Punch garnered critical praise, and was nominated for Best New Play at both the Evening Standard and Olivier Awards. Further cementing its significance in contemporary British theatre, his work in the production saw a then-21-year-old Daniel Kaluuya, now an Academy Award winner, lauded as Best Newcomer by both the Evening Star and Critics Circle.
The story begins with Leon and Troy, two black teenagers who have been made to work as cleaners in a boxing gym after Troy’s mother begged owner Charlie to not call the police following a break-in. With star boxer Tommy increasingly less loyal to Charlie and his daughter Becky continually hounding him about their finances, Charlie soon sees a potential in Leon and takes him on as his new trainee, allowing Troy to train alongside them.
Set during the 1980s, Roy Williams’ Sucker Punch was always a period piece, but the 13 years between the original staging and this regional premiere make it all too potent the familiarity of both racist and homophobic remarks in the text. While repeated use of “batty boy” and “queer” drew gasps, the continual and casual racism towards Leon and Troy, as well as their largely unseen families, was harrowingly similar to the way some people openly speak today.
As such, two characters become difficult to feel any true sympathy for – both star trainee Tommy and gym-owner Charlie are so outwardly critical of Leon and Troy on the basis of their being black that seeing Tommy abandon the gym for a professional manager is a welcome reprieve. Liam Smith’s performance as Charlie is balanced and understated, clearly developing a paternal bond without the point needing to be forced to the forefront, but Williams’ script is wiser than to soften him fully, and the awareness of his prejudice helps us to understand Leon’s community turning against him as his boxing success is continually linked to this washed-up white man.
Leon, Kaluuya’s award-winning role, is played here by Shem Hamilton. It’s often easy to forget that Hamilton is not a cocky, self-serving athlete himself, as he is so adept at balancing the boyish charm that wins over fans with the growing arrogance and abandonment of early principles that loses him friendships. His chemistry with Poppy Winter’s Becky feels genuine, and the façade that comes over his mugging for the fictional (and at least once, the actual) crowd is utterly captivating.
Absent in the middle third of the story but striking a commanding presence in Leon’s youthful rise and his eventual downfall, Christian Alifoe’s Troy is a character of intense duality. First seen as the less easily swayed of the two teens, he eventually makes a transatlantic move and returns as a fake-accented but deeply serious fighter. He serves as a foil for his former friend – while Leon performs for the delight of his mostly white audience, Alifoe’s quiet dignity show that Troy is unwilling to make a fool of himself for their entertainment.
Leon’s father, Squid, and eventual girlfriend, Becky, help to bring some levity in act one, while their increasing frustrations allow this small cast to effectively demonstrate communal attitude’s to the leading man’s growing success. Wayne Rollins gives Squid a cartoonish energy when first introduced, scoring constant laughs with his sexual innuendos and stories of conquests. Later, he lets out a wholly believable pent-up frustration at his son’s choices. Becky, played by Poppy Winter, grows noticeably throughout the play from a scornful teenager into a mature adult. Perhaps because she is a white woman herself, she doesn’t see the issues with Leon’s conduct right away, but when her dad demands their separation, we see in real-time on Winter’s face the realisation that the adoration of fans means more than her love.
Director Nathan Powell allows his cast to play up the archetypes of their roles early on, allowing them to come across as the children they are and leaning into the comedic elements which keep the slightly perfunctory, expository opening scenes moving briskly. These often brazen and continually outspoken characters could easily lead to a temptation to stage the rest of the work without the nuance it calls for, but he has found a firm balance between the script’s comedic and dramatic impulses. Powell’s vision comes to life in large part due to the stage deign by Sandra Falase, with the action all taking place in and around the boxing ring and staircase to an upstairs office which form the gym itself.
The work of Asha Jennings-Grant and a Enric Ortuño, the movement and fight directors, is the final piece of this carefully laid-puzzle. Jennings-Grant compliments the performances by gradually stripping away the youthful exuberance in Leon and Troy’s movements, with Troy becoming subdued and methodical after at first being the more animated of the pair. Ortuño, making use of coach Gary Cooke’s skills, has crafted realistic and at times painful-to-watch fight sequences – for the most part, it’s Shem Hamilton alone on stage acting out how a fight went, but Ortuño and Cooke’s work becomes invaluable in the eventual confrontation between old friends.
Likewise, the subduing or focusing of onstage lighting by Joshie Harriette, creating the atmosphere change between the boxing gym and a real-life ring, helps bring these moments to life. Meanwhile sound design by Duramaney Kamara brings the fictional crowd to life and helps re-establish Leon’s point of view when all other noise is drowned out by the buzzing of his mounting doubts and stress.
One fault I did notice throughout the evening, a real shame given the amount of effort gone into keeping the show and the venue accessible, was the pacing of the show’s above-stage captioning. With a single line up at a time and left long enough to be read, the captions were sometimes several seconds behind the action, creating a disconnect between the two. More prominently, the performance’s continual use of overlapping dialogue during heated exchanges was not represented by the captions, which simply showed the entirety of one character’s line before displaying the next, losing some of the emotional impact of these scenes and furthering these timing issues.
A well-performed and largely triumphant regional debut for this already-loved piece, this new Sucker Punch is largely victorious, and leading man Shem Hamilton’s ease and charisma will win audiences over and prove why his is already a multi-award-winning role. With a strong cast and a striking stage design and startling fight choreography, the show is a visual knock-out packing an emotional punch.
Sucker Punch plays at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch until April 15th.
For more information and to book tickets, visit https://www.queens-theatre.co.uk/whatson/sucker-punch/
Photos by Manuel Harlan