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Sucker Punch by Roy Williams - our review of the revival at Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch

Guest Post by Deborah Russell

I was intrigued to see this play, having missed it when it was at the Royal Court back in 2010. Roy Samuel Williams, who was awarded an OBE in 2008 for Services to Drama, gives us a gritty view of what life was like for young black men in the early 1980s with our tale revolving around two young men Leon and Troy, whose lives are marked by the racism they have to battle on a daily basis.

The script doesn’t hold back and the language was, if I’m honest, a bit of a shock. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to hear such open racial slurs and the raw misogyny that could be aimed at those women, so low as to go out with black men. As a piece of social history alone its power levels were on a high notch. As a young woman in the 1980s I had walked down the streets of South London with black male friends and the odd boyfriend or two. I’d been spat at and called names by white and black alike. Open and sometimes veiled hostility wasn’t unusual and it was interesting if somewhat uncomfortable to revisit those days.

A boxing ring, 2 young black men and a white girl inside and 2 white men standing outside
Photo credit Manuel Harlan L-R Liam Smith, Poppy Winter, John Rogers, Shem Hamilton and Christian Alifoe

The main vitriol is however aimed at Leon and Troy. We first meet them while they’re both carrying out unofficial community service following an attempted robbery at Charlie’s boxing gym. With the riots in Brixton and the Broadwater Farm Estate, indeed the general tone of the Thatcher period as a backdrop, the scene is set for these two and choices have to be made as they battle with their own expectations of what life has to give them and where their allegiances will lie.

Charlie, or Chas, has run the gym for some time, always looking for the next good fighter who can bring medals and renown to his name, he really wants a white fighter but he’ll settle for a black one if it means a boost to his finances and his reputation. Chas’s motives may be suspect but his hard life has taken its toll and the deep streak of cynicism that runs through his veins won’t allow him to let his guard down around the lads he’s chosen to help. This continues even as Leon’s choices aligned themselves with Chas’s future.

We had subtitles in the theatre to help us with the patois introduced by Leon’s father Squid, a hilarious character who is Chas’s exact opposite – Squid’s reputation with women and the bookies precedes him. His use of Brut or if she’s really a ‘sort’, Old Spice (aftershave, for our younger readers), had the whole audience laughing, and while Leon laps up any praise he can from his father, Squid wants the odd handout his boy can provide.

Our one female character in this male dominated world of sweaty boxing gyms is Becky played by Poppy Winter. She’s desperately trying to get her dad organised and help him keep the gym open, she’s also attracted to Leon and you can see where that storyline is going to get her ….. This world wasn’t one that women had a part in, boxing wasn’t for girls in the early 80s, either in the ring or outside of it, Nicola Adams hadn’t yet been invented and Becky herself isn’t free from racial stereotyping and harsh words.

What I loved about this play wasn’t just the drama and the pathos though. All that angst needed the antidote of humour and this was brought out brilliantly by the actors and the production. Squid’s quit witted responses, Troy’s youthful over confidence and Leon’s shuffle. Loads of laughs, as well as gasps from the audience when the words landed, causing us to squirm with the 23 discomfort of those of us living in a more liberal 2023. At one point there was a collective ‘oooh’ at a particularly cutting jibe. Absolutely loved it.

Boxer raises his arm in victory inside a boxing ring
Photo credit Manuel Harlan L-R Liam Smith and Shem Hamilton

The scenes in the ring were excellent, using music and lighting to its very best effect taking us with Leon over his next few years, his relationship with Becky, his many fights, his achievements and his losses.

Ultimately this play that centres so much on choices and alignments across the racial divides, has our two young protagonists meeting head on in the ring. I won’t give away the result but when the gloves are off final choices need to be made.

With a standing ovation on a packed night the return of Sucker Punch is a definite win for Queens Theatre and congratulations are quite rightly due.

Leon – Shem Hamilton

Troy – Christian Alifoe

Charlie – Liam Smith

Becky – Poppy Winter

Tommy – John Rogers

Squid – Wayne Rollinns

Ray – Ray Strasser-King

When: Now until 15th April 2023


Where: Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, Billet Lane, RM11 1QT


Tickets: boxoffice@queens-theatre.co.uk or online: https://www.queens-theatre.co.uk/whatson/sucker-punch/

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