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Sucker Punch by Roy Williams at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch

For some, boxing is a crude sport, whose participants do what they do at their own risk, and the idea of becoming a champion by punching other people in a superior fashion to one’s opponents is bizarre at best and unethical at worst. For others, however, it’s a lifeline, a worthy alternative for youngsters who might otherwise end up getting involved in violence on the streets – as well as a criminal record. Then there are boxing promoters like Ray (Ray Strasser-King), for whom professional boxing is a lucrative industry, where there are deals to be done and matches to be won. His fighting talk, which he instils in his star boxer, Troy (Christian Alifoe) is admirable, and it seems there is some truth to the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy. He says his man is going to emerge victorious in a boxing match (against whom would be giving too much away), and sure enough, his prediction proves correct.

Sucker Punch Production Image - Photographer Manuel Harlan L-R Liam Smith, Poppy Winter, John Rogers, Shem Hamilton and Christian Alifoe.
Sucker Punch Production Image – Photographer Manuel Harlan L-R Liam Smith, Poppy Winter, John Rogers, Shem Hamilton and Christian Alifoe.

It is not, of course, simply a case of willpower, and Sucker Punch does well to stage and dramatize the hard work and training involved. Charlie (Liam Smith) takes on both Troy and his friend Leon (Shem Hamilton) as unpaid cleaning staff after they were caught breaking and entering into Charlie’s boxing gym – a deal struck in return for Charlie not reporting the crime and pressing charges accordingly. This, of course, has its own moral and ethical arguments and implications – and the show is set in Thatcher’s Britain, when the police would attend crime scenes. There’s some gratitude that they’re not in a custody suite, but the state of the gym’s toilets is beyond dire, thanks to trainee boxers working on their techniques in the ring to the extent that they vomit in the loo. Just as well, then, that there aren’t any scenes in the lavatories themselves.

A boxing ring, aptly enough, takes centre stage. When Charlie literally throws in the towel once it becomes clear his client Leon isn’t going to win a match in progress, it becomes something figurative, too, and for reasons explained in the narrative, his boxing gym closes. There’s a rather explicit metaphor about picking your battles and closing the book you’re reading once you’ve reached the last page (and so on), with the still somewhat untamed Leon wanting to press ahead: his own father Squid (Wayne Rollins), a shady but nonetheless likeable character, makes a good point that, “White people love nuttin’ better than to see two black men beat up on each other”.

This isn’t universally true, of course – some people, whoever they are, don’t enjoy watching boxing of any kind – though the racial tensions of the time are vividly portrayed. Even being a black boxer with a white manager led to accusations of the former being someone who has betrayed his own race and culture by apparently embracing another, but as the storyline eventually makes clear, having a black manager also means having to do what one is told to do, however ridiculous or uncomfortable. The boxers are so reliant on management that when Leon stands, almost helplessly, holding his arm out for Charlie to remove his hand wraps, it seems indicative of near-total dependence overall.

There’s a lot to think about in this briskly paced production, in which power corrupts, and absolute power does indeed corrupt absolutely. The list of credits was a more interesting read than usual, including a movement director, fight director, boxing coach, wellness coach and physiotherapist: some considerable effort has gone into making training and boxing scenes come across as credible, and it pays off in convincing and riveting performances.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Two best mates, Leon and Troy, have spent their youth growing up in a boxing gym, figuring out a place in the world, vying for the approval of Charlie, their trainer. Soon Leon and Becky, Charlie’s daughter, are trying to keep a big secret. In a ruthless world. But there can only be one winner, and it’s time everyone stepped into the ring to face up to who they really are…

This tender, bruising and funny play by leading British dramatist Roy Williams, brilliantly explores being young and black in the 80s.

Christian Alifoe – Troy
Shem Hamilton – Leon
John Rogers – Tommy
Wayne Rollins – Squid
Liam Smith – Charlie
Ray Strasser-King – Ray
Poppy Winter – Becky

Creative Team
Nathan Powell Director
Sandra Falase Designer
Joshie Harriette Lighting Designer
Duramaney Kamara Sound Designer
Asha Jennings-Grant Movement Director
Enric Ortuño Fight Director
Gary Cooke Boxing Coach
Malena Arcucci Costume Supervisor
Phyllys Egharevba Associate Designer
Christopher Worrall Casting Director
Michelle Richards Wellness Coach
Salvatore Sorce Accent Coach
Tosin Alabi Assistant Director

30 Mar – 15 Apr 2023


1 thought on “Sucker Punch by Roy Williams at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch”

  1. A great new play at this theatre, making amends for its disastrous previous production which led to walkouts

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