Royal Court Theatre, London SW1
Opened 19 June, 2010

The Royal Court auditorium has been remade by designer Miriam Buether into a boxing gym-cum-arena. Most of us sit above the action, peering down as Leon Davidson makes his journey from schoolboy burglar to world title contender. For the climactic bout, in which Leon meets his old mate Troy, now living in America, overhead signage is flown in and the lights intensify so that we see ourselves multiply reflected in the mirrored side walls as a real boxing crowd. To heighten the experience, director Sacha Wares has stylised the other fight sequences so that this is in fact the first time we see two men in direct physical engagement with each other. The rest, like much of the sport itself, is psychological.

In fact, Leon’s main opponent throughout the 95-minute piece is psychological: racism. The gym’s first hot-shot fighter Tommy is full of contempt for the black kids, even using the loathsome “monkey” analogy. Trainer Chas would rather throw away his last hope of economic survival than allow Leon to go out with his daughter Becky, and Troy’s pre-match sledging of Leon in the press calls him an Uncle Tom. Much is made of the use of the term “boy”, as it shades from trainer/manager’s paternal usage into that of a slavemaster. Wares’ production is tight and agile. As Leon, the talented actor/writer/musician Daniel Kaluuya is engaging; Nigel Lindsay is perfect casting as the ever-pressured Chas, and Trevor Laird has the right kind of appeal as Leon’s defiantly feckless father.

Roy Williams is of course an expert at writing about racism in sport: he has dealt with it among fans in his breakthrough play Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads and among football players in There’s Only One Wayne Matthews! and Joe Guy, the latter of which also contained, like this, the plot strand of a sporting success sacrificing his personal life for the trappings of fame. This is where my reservations lie: apart from the subject of boxing, I cannot rid myself of the feeling that Williams has done all this before, even the 1980s setting (although he gets points for correctly associating the moonwalk with Jeffrey Daniel of Shalamar before Michael Jackson appropriated it). Williams is smart and eloquent, and he has more to say than this.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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