21/11/2016 07:17 GMT | Updated 18/11/2017 05:12 GMT

The Royale (Review)


American writer Marco Ramirez's boxing drama packs a real punch. The play follows African American contender Jay Johnson whose fighting doesn't stop in the ring. He may live under the Jim Crow law of early twentieth-century America, but he has big dreams - he wants to be heavyweight champion of the world. There's only one thing stopping him - the title belongs to a white man and boxing promoters won't allow interracial fights.

But Jay is on a mission: he sees winning the title as part of the struggle against racial injustice. His sister, however, has other ideas.

So intent is Jay on winning, he fails to recognise that the belt will cost African Americans dear the whole country over, such is his popularity. It takes his sister to point out the true cost of fighting oppression. But will he heed her warning?

The Royale is a very muscular, frenetic play that kicks off with Jay fighting a bout with a newcomer, played by an engaging Martins Imhangbe. Brilliantly staged, the entire drama is set in a boxing ring, just a wooden-slated floor that becomes the whole world.

The actors seldom stop moving - apart from one scene, Nicholas Pinnock as the charismatic Johnson, is on stage the entire time. It is beautifully choreographed with the actors bobbing and weaving around each other, lending the play an almost balletic grace.

The story is inspired by the real-life Jack Johnson, who after winning the heavyweight title, became one of the most famous people in the world - all while living under a segregated America. The play takes its title from a grim episode recounted by Jay's coach, played by Jude Akuwudike. After years at his side, he finally tells Jay of his early boxing days the night before the big fight; he recalls being blindfolded and put in a ring with six other black men, all for the entertainment of wealthy white men. The winner was whoever was left standing at the end.

The message is clear: every punch Jay throws in the ring against the white defender will be a blow against racism.

At 90 minutes, Marco Ramirez's play is a lean, mean fighting machine. If I have one criticism it's that Franc Ashman as Jay's sister enters the action of the drama too late (more than halfway through). This is more than a shame as Ashman is an energising presence whose performance near fizzes with electricity.

And I have to wonder at the staging of yet another American play. But still it's a joy to see a production that is actually about something real, and not another facile drawing room affair.

The Royale is on at the Tabernacle Theatre, 34-35 Powis Square, London W11