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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Royale
Bush Theatre   Spring 2015

Marco Ramirez's prizefighting drama covers familiar territory but from a fresh angle and, along with Madani Younis's sharp and inventive staging, offers an engrossing and intriguing ninety minutes. 

Ramiriz bases his play about an African-American fighter on the real-life career of Jack Johnson, who became the first black heavyweight champion a little over a century ago, not to the universal delight of sports fans.

In telling his version of the story Ramirez inevitably treads the same ground as Howard Sackler's 1967 play The Great White Hope, and there are also echoes of every boxing film from Golden Boy to Raging Bull. 

But where most of his predecessors told rise-and-fall stories, Ramirez is more interested in the passion driving his hero, raising but not exploring the spectre of the personal and societal repercussions victory will bring. 

The Royale's Jay Jackson is very good at what he does, and he knows it. He wants a chance to fight the white champion not for money or glory or racial pride, but for the confirmation and recognition of his talent. 

Still, as the play gets deeper into Jay's mind and his need to face the dangers a victory will bring to him and others, we will eventually learn that he does have a second, race-based motivation that enriches our understanding of the character. 

The play is carried rapidly forward not just by the anticipation of the inevitable championship bout and a real uncertainty as to its outcome, but also by the raw energy and inventiveness of Madani Younis's direction. 

Following hints in the text, Younis stages the fight scenes as tightly choreographed mimes, with the opponents never actually touching and sometimes not even facing each other as they deliver and react to punches. 

The adversarial nature of a press conference is underlined by playing it as a boxing match, and a particularly evocative and impressive piece of staging makes visible the demons and fears Jay must battle along with his opponent in the climactic bout. 

Playing the fighter, Nicholas Pinnock wisely recognises that Jay's power must come from some central unknowability and keeps parts of the character closed to us even as we catch passing glimpses of them. 

There is strong support by the entire rest of the cast – Frances Ashman, Clint Dyer, Gershwyn Eustache Jnr and Ewan Stewart – all contributing to the reality and power of the drama.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Royale - Bush Theatre 2015

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