The Theatreguide.London Review
Royal Court Theatre Summer 2010
I first encountered Roy Williams' new play as a 1930s movie with John Garfield, and then again as a 1940s movie starring Kirk Douglas, and of course the 1980 version with Robert De Niro. Williams has tweaked the formula a bit, but not as much as he thinks.
A gym owner spots some boxing talent in one of the lads working for him and offers to train him, while ejecting his trouble-making buddy.
The boy has to choose between his ambition and his loyalty to his friend, a decision he'll later have to make about his girlfriend and ultimately his trainer.
Meanwhile the other kid goes away and also becomes a boxer, and inevitably the two meet in the ring, only to have the winner discover that the corrupt world of boxing makes him no more in control of his life than the loser.
Not exactly the same plot as Champion or Raging Bull, I grant, but the basic arc of a boxer's rise, loss of his soul, and fall is the same, and making the two boxers black doesn't really add very much.
Setting the play in the 1980s allows for passing references to the Brixton riots, and gives an edge to the central character’s choice between his homeboy and the white trainer and white girlfriend.
But that is almost immediately neutralised by making the other boxer's manager black, and besides, even this angle has already been explored in Howard Sackler's Great White Hope and the Sammy Davis version of Golden Boy.
So there is ultimately very little new in what Williams tells us about the dangers of ambition, the corruption of success or even the explanation of why white audiences like watching two black men beat each other up.
What there is, is an excellent production by director Sacha Wares and some very strong central performances.
The Royal Court has been reshaped into an in-the-round arena, with a boxing ring in the centre that doubles as the gym and the site of various matches, which are all presented either through Daniel Kaluuya describing his string of victories as he dances about the empty ring, or through very evocative choreography by Leon Baugh for the climactic bout between the former friends.
Although the script forces Kaluuya to move a bit abruptly from attractive striver to egotistical hothead, the strength of his characterisation in the early scenes carries him over the leap and keeps some of our sympathy on his way down.
Nigel Lindsay captures all the complexities of the trainer whose sincere support for his boxer is coloured by the knowledge that the boy is his last ticket to the big time.
Anthony Welsh as the buddy-turned-opponent and Sarah Ridgeway as the girlfriend go far toward making what are essentially just plot devices into real characters.
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