Wednesday 26 April 2023

Sucker Punch

 Curve, Leicester

25th April, 2023

You can’t win, neither of you

In 2017, the National Theatre established the Theatre Nation Partnerships network. It strives to support the ‘long-term health of local theatre audiences’ by reaching new audiences and particularly engaging young people in priority areas across England. As part of its commitment to mid-scale touring, and in partnership with Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch, Roy Williams’ 2010 play Sucker Punch opened at Curve last night. Set in the 1980s, the play uses boxing as a cipher to explore social and racial division in British society. Williams’ portrayal of the boxing world and how it is entwined with identity is unflinching. But what is perhaps most striking is the play’s contemporaneity. It’s a seminal play, surely a modern classic, and crucial it’s being toured to a wider audience for the first time.

We first meet Leon and Troy arguing over the chores they’ve been assigned as punishment for breaking into a local boxing club. They soon catch the attention of Charlie, a bigoted, washed-up gym owner who trains them to fight. The play follows the two boys as they progress down different paths: Leon grows in stature as a serious UK boxing contender, while Troy compromises his talent as he rails against the police, eventually leaving London for a new life in the US. The boys also embody diverse attitudes towards the prejudice and injustice they encounter on a daily basis. Troy is angry, lashing out against institutionalised racism, while Leon takes a more fatalistic view, seeking acceptance from his white, working class trainer/father figure Charlie. There is a sense that Charlie is genuinely affectionate and proud of Leon, yet he cannot hide his bigotry when he discovers the relationship between his daughter Becky and Leon.

Williams scrutinises aspects of racial and masculine identity amidst Thatcherite Britain against the backdrop of the Brixton Riots. However, the play highlights how these issues are just as pertinent in 21st century Britain. Sucker Punch premiered just one year before the London riots in 2011, ignited by the police shooting of Mark Duggan. In 2023, we see it through the lens of the ongoing Black Lives Matter campaign against institutionalised racism which came more into prominence following the death of George Floyd in the USA. The themes explored in Sucker Punch echo through the decades. It becomes increasingly obvious that the boys have little control over their own lives. The imposing Ray gets into Troy’s face, telling him ‘I made you […] You are mine’, and Charlie manipulates his bigoted relationship with Leon for his own gain. He presents him with an ultimatum; he will become Leon’s manager, but only if he stops seeing Becky.

While excelling in sport, Williams highlights the inevitable contradictions in the boxers’ roles. At the end of Act 1, Leon fights Charlie’s ex-pupil. The ‘white, pale faces […] cheering Tommy on, telling him to bury me’, demonstrate the way boxing, in its legitimised violence, can, in the worst cases, become a vicarious outlet for racial hatred. Despite the two protagonists being set up as opposites in attitude and philosophy, in one of the most elucidating passages, Leon’s father offers some home truths ahead of the climactic match: ‘You can’t win, neither of you […] they love nothing better than to see two black men beat up on each other. They too afraid to do it themselves, so they get you to do it’.


Nathan Powell’s production is more literal than the original Royal Court staging. Whereas that production turned the entire space into a boxing ring, Sandra Falase’s design plunges us into a grotty gym: a shipping container is used as a makeshift office, and sentimentalised photos of fights from years gone by adorn the walls. From this, we get a fuller sense of the world the characters inhabit, and it also allows Powell to bring out some of the lighter moments in the play. The production is fleshed out by some engaging performances. Shem Hamilton traces Leon’s arc extremely impressively. He goes from displaying Leon’s scrappy energy, doing tricks with the skipping rope and bouncing around the ring, to focusing his performance as the play progresses to show Leon becoming more disciplined. Liam Smith plays the older East End trainer very well. In the first act, he embodies Charlie’s masculine performativity and beagle-eyed focus which slips away to something more desperate in the second act. As well as attitudes to race, Powell also highlights the play’s emphasis on toxic masculinity particularly in how the teenagers talk to Becky. Portrayed by Poppy Winter as fierce and strong-willed, we’re reminded that she’s really the strongest character in the play.

In his earlier play Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads (2002), and in his later blistering Death of England trilogy (2020-2021, co-written with Clint Dyer), Williams uses football to explore English national identity in relation to race and class. Through the more confrontational metaphor and concentrated space of a boxing ring, Sucker Punch presents us with the bleak reality that racism and violence are even more a pressing issue now than they ever were.

Sucker Punch plays at Curve, Leicester until 29th April. It then tours until 24th June. For further information please visit

Shem Hamilton as Leon in Sucker Punch. Credit: Manuel Harlan

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