Sucker Punch is both an intensely intimate and powerfully physical show with complex characters tackling deeply entrenched societal racism whilst navigating the ruthless world of professional sport. It is a story of identity against adversity and the pursuit of dreams and love in a society that wants to see you fail and fall.
Set against Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s, the play follows Leon (Shem Hamilton), a young Black man whose talent for boxing is spotted by gym owner Charlie (Liam Smith). Leon’s friend, Troy (Christian Alifoe) also shows promise, but his rebellious nature sees him quickly drop out of Charlie’s favour.
Leon’s rise through the boxing ranks and parallel romance with Charlie’s white daughter Becky (Poppy Winter) sees him fight not just opponents in the ring, but the external forces of racism from his rival Tommy (John Rogers) and the wider community, and isolation from his friends.
Where Leon strives for success at home, Troy feels forced to move to America after what he perceives as a betrayal by Leon in a time of need during the Brixton Riots. Although Leon and Troy are both aiming for the same goal, their journeys change them in different ways.
Director Nathan Powell successfully navigates the complex social issues raised by Williams’ script in a way that adds to the character arcs and plot development and at no point do the themes become didactic or overdone.
Williams’ signature naturalistic, yet incisive language is deployed during many of the boxing matches, with Leon narrating his progress from match to match, rather than these being physically played out. These montages act as a thread connecting scenes of the play that are otherwise disparate in both time and location. Despite being done through narration, these scenes still carry weight thanks to Hamilton’s powerful, yet authentic delivery.
Physical representations of boxing are saved for pivotal matches between Leon and his rival Tommy or old friend Troy. Here, the work of Gary Cooke and Enric Ortuño—the show’s boxing coach and fight director, respectively—comes to the fore with true skill (and sweat) on show in these scenes.
Sucker Punch is an intensely physical show, and the cast is more than up for the job. Hamilton gives a stellar performance throughout, whether delivering a monologue whilst skipping rope, boxing in the ring, or verbally sparring with his father. Alifoe and Rogers both match Hamilton’s physical prowess on stage, with the trio bringing energy and power to the show.
Smith plays the cantankerous Charlie with great nuance, highlighting the character’s inner conflicts and demons. On the one hand, he seems to care about Leon and yet is also unable to see how deep-rooted and harmful his racist views and actions are. Smith switches from anger to despair with deftness drawing sympathy to the character, despite his flaws.
Wayne Rollins brings moments of lightness to the play in his role of Squid, Leon’s father. He dances and jokes with brilliant comic timing but is also able to pack an emotional punch when required. His chemistry with Hamilton is clear and together the pair depict an emotionally charged and complex father-son relationship.
Curve’s studio theatre is transformed by designer Sandra Falase into an intimate boxing gym with the boxing ring filling most of the space. The set remains mostly unchanged throughout the show, but clever lighting (Joshie Harriette) and sound (Duramaney Kamara) design subtly signpost the passage of time as well as indicating mood changes in the show.
This production of Sucker Punch is a revival of Williams’ 2010 play and is touring the UK as part of the National Theatre Network. The show is playing at Curve in Leicester between Tuesday 25 April and Saturday 29 April. All performances are captioned.