Sucker Punch

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.

Leon Daniel Kaluuya Charlie Nigel Lindsay Troy Anthony Welsh Tommy Jason Maza Becky Sarah Ridgeway Squid Trevor Laird Ray Gary Beadle

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

Sucker Punch

Royal Court Theater, London; 308 seats; £25 top

Production: A Royal Court Theater presentation of a play in one act by Roy Williams. Directed by Sacha Wares.

Creative: Sets and costumes by Miriam Buether; lighting, Peter Mumford; sound, Gareth Fry; choreography, Leon Baugh; production stage manager, Ben Delfont. Reviewed June 18, 2010. Opened June 19. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN

Cast: Leon Daniel Kaluuya Charlie Nigel Lindsay Troy Anthony Welsh Tommy Jason Maza Becky Sarah Ridgeway Squid Trevor Laird Ray Gary Beadle

More Legit

  • Grand Horizons review

    'Grand Horizons': Theater Review

    Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one, as you surely must have: A nice, all-American family is in the process of breaking up and trying to make this sad state of affairs seem funny in Bess Wohl’s Broadway outing “Grand Horizons.” After 50 years of marriage, Nancy (the ever-elegant Jane Alexander) and Bill (the [...]

  • Uncle Vanya review

    'Uncle Vanya': Theater Review

    Director Ian Rickson has had success with Chekhov in the past. His exquisitely balanced, tragicomic production of “The Seagull” (2007 in London, 2008 on Broadway) was well-nigh flawless with, among others, Kristin Scott Thomas as painfully vulnerable as she was startlingly funny. Sadly, with his production of “Uncle Vanya,” despite felicities in the casting, lightning [...]

  • The Welkin review

    'The Welkin': Theater Review

    A life hanging perilously in the balance of charged-up, polarized opinions: This courtroom drama could easily have been titled “Twelve Angry Women.” But playwright Lucy Kirkwood (“Chimerica,” “The Children”) is far too strong and imaginative a writer for so hand-me-down a cliché. Instead she opts for “The Welkin,” an old English term for the vault [...]

  • Tina Fey attends the "Mean Girls"

    Tina Fey Announces Movie Adaptation of Broadway's 'Mean Girls' Musical

    It’s good to be mean…the “Mean Girls” musical, that is. Producers of the hit Broadway show announced today that the Tony-nominated production is being adapted for the big screen for Paramount Pictures. The musical is based on the 2004 movie of the same name. “I’m very excited to bring ‘Mean Girls’ back to the big screen,’ Tina Fey, [...]

  • Freestyle Love Supreme

    Watch Lin-Manuel Miranda and 'Freestyle Love Supreme' in Exclusive Clip From Sundance Documentary

    Before turning “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” into musical phenomenons, Lin-Manuel Miranda could have been found on stage, spouting off-the-cuff rhymes with his improv group, “Freestyle Love Supreme.” After performing across the globe, the troupe — founded 15 years ago by Miranda, his frequent collaborator Thomas Kail and emcee Anthony Veneziale — made its Broadway [...]

  • Ariana Grande 7 Rings

    Rodgers & Hammerstein Are Having a Moment Thanks to Ariana Grande, 'Oklahoma!'

    Jaws dropped when it was revealed that the late musical theater titans Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were granted 90% of the songwriting royalties on “7 Rings,” Ariana Grande’s 2019 No. 1 hit. The dominant motif of Grande’s song is taken from “My Favorite Things,” the cornerstone of R&H’s 1959 musical “The Sound of [...]

  • A Soldiers Play review

    'A Soldier's Play': Theater Review

    Now, that’s what I call a play! Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “A Soldier’s Play,” now being revived on Broadway by Roundabout Theatre Company, packs plenty of dramatic tension into smoldering issues of racial justice and injustice, military honor and dishonor, and the solemn struggle to balance their harrowing demands on characters who are only [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content