Profile-wise, helming new plays is rarely the smartest of moves because it’s the writers who tend to bag the notices. Not this time. Sacha Wares’ production of Roy Williams’ new play, “Sucker Punch,” is so bold in conception and so superbly executed that it almost blinds you to the thinness of the material. But not quite.
Williams, Britain’s most prolific black playwright, uses sport literally and metaphorically to examine his country’s divergent black politics in the 1980s. Set in and around a boxing ring, his play explores the divide between assimilationist and radical routes through the racism of white British society, embodied by two rough-and-ready young friends, Leon (Daniel Kaluuya) and Troy (Anthony Welsh), who clean the rundown London gym run by working-class white Charlie (Nigel Lindsay).
Spotting talent, Charlie starts training them, but differences drive the lads apart. A hotheaded troublemaker who grows to despise Leon’s lack of politics, Troy emigrates to Detroit for its wider opportunities. You don’t need a crystal ball to know the play will surely climax with the two of them re-meeting for a knockout bout.
The inevitability of the plotting not only robs the proceedings of tension, it points up the schematic nature of the writing. Williams depicts Leon’s career proceeding along all the expected lines as he goes from nowhere to amateur champ to professional fighter with money showered upon him.
Williams’ writing is alive to the era’s casual but brutal racism; however, the script slips into over-explanatory soap-style dialogue with little left to the imagination. A worrying lack of detail means scenes play like necessary staging posts in an argument punctuated by monologues depicting inner thoughts and fights. A tougher edit producing fewer scenes with more developed drama could have ratcheted up the tension.
Thanks to boxing trainer Errol Christie and choreographer Leon Baugh, the first-rate cast sweat authenticity, not least Lindsay’s permanently angry Charlie, who hides from the fact that he’s drinking in the last-chance saloon (a fact made too obvious by Williams writing him as a former alcoholic).
Kaluuya and Welsh are wholly convincing as fighters. Welsh’s character suffers from being underwritten, but darting about the stage Kaluuya reveals physical ease, spectacular timing and an alert presence that can switch instantly into vulnerability.
Wares lands every punch by maintaining an iron grip on all production elements within Miriam Buether’s audacious set design, which completely reconfigures the Royal Court’s proscenium arch theater into an in-the-round experience. Peter Mumford’s lighting — expertly conjuring contrasting locations and moods from the depressing chill of the gym to the searchlights of the big fight — is superbly meshed with Gareth Fry’s atmospherically punchy sound design.
Too bad that the play itself fails to deliver on its promise.