The first of three plays to be staged at the Tricycle using a new ensemble centred on black actors is the UK premiere of Abram Hill's 1938 drama about boxing and race in America. The transatlantic differences between those two cultures make this delay partly understandable. Whilst Britain was far from free of racism, it had nothing corresponding to the "Jim Crow" system of segregation. Nor did boxing have a similar status as a principal Depression-era route to the American Dream. Boxing movies were a major genre in 1930s Hollywood, usually involving a proud if pig-headed hero winning out against some powerful evildoer and/or institutionalised corruption, and getting the girl into the bargain. For, like so much else at the time, boxing was a racket, run by managers and promoters to make money both from the fights themselves and from betting on rigged results.
Given these factors, you can pretty much guess how Hill's play develops. Promising pug Andy Whitman is signed by honest manager Mack, who in turn is under the thumb of the wicked kingpin Lou; when Andy stands up for himself by refusing to accept the "no vacancies" line at a hotel he had been booked into, his fighting career stalls; when he lays out Lou for calling him a nigger, his future is buried altogether. His romance with Ruth, the girl across the Harlem courtyard where he grew up, is endangered by his desire to escape such a circumscribed world.
For a play focused on two such massive arenas of tension, Nicolas Kent's production seldom feels truly edgy, until some way into the second half when Hill begins overwriting the character of Lou (played by Rupert Farley) almost to the point of making him George Raft. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith captures Andy's obstinacy, but it largely feels trapped and directionless. Mac McDonald as Mack is unsure of his lines, and Stephen Beckett as Lou's cash-cow champion Larry has the phoniest guffaw I have ever heard. Joseph Marcell and Carmen Munroe give diligent support as Andy's father and grandmother; Ony Uhiara is as angelic as Ruth needs to be. Ultimately, Hill hits all the target areas but without sufficient power, fails to secure a knockout and the judges consequently offer up a split decision.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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