Sitting on four sides of a raised wooden platform, a blunt foot stamp kicks us into the action. Two rippled black athletes sit across from each other on wooden footstools, heads bent forward. They are compered for by a rather formally dressed white man. He and the lone trainer clap and stamp out a rhythm, knocking the action forwards one shunt at a time. When the fight itself begins, the punches are heavy more in poetry than physical exertion. The actors play out their hooks, jabs and responses to those thrown by their partner from feet apart. We move into stream of consciousness delivery on both sides. Boxing here is as much a sport of the mind as of the body.
It must be said early on that the quality in production comes from all corners. Set, sound, costume and lights weave together to create a unified front. It is easy to feel transported to the intense and claustrophobic world of the boxing arena in amongst the woody tones and downlit design.
The year is 1905, and this is the story of boxer Jay ‘The Sport’ Jackson (Nicholas Pinnock). Based on the real life boxer Jack Johnson, Jay is a black man in a segregated United States. Years before the Civil Rights movement, Jay is already making waves for racial equality: unfortunately, they are waves in treacle. He is the ‘negro’ heavyweight champion of the world, and he is good. “So good at the sport they called him ‘The Sport’,” his promoter Max (Ewan Stewart) explains. And he’s ambitious. The play charts Jay’s efforts to tempt Champ Bixby – the reigning white champion – out of retirement and into the ring.
There are many pawns at play here, and Jay is not a simple hero. Around him grows a spider’s web that tugs at him from a number angles. As the narrative steps forward we are asked to question his motives. Can he continue to pursue his goals in spite of the potential social unsettlement it may cause? Is his drive actually bent on selfish gain, or is he an agent of change for the greater good? As tension builds toward the finale, this web becomes an impressive structure. It leaves Jay without breathing room. It is to director Madani Younis (also Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre) and writer Marco Ramirez’s credit however that the twist which sets him free is powerful, unforeseeable, and clean.
Pinnock is stellar as Jay. He is a rock of confidence and infectiously charismatic, while still able to keep his cards close to his chest. Clint Dyer’s fierce loyalty as Jay’s coach Wynton has you truly believing his more wiry physique is capable of taking on any of these gloved-up giants. He fronts my favourite moment in the body of the production, a beautifully tense scene in which he halts the progress of the warm-hearted heavyweight Fish (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) with just a twitch of a footstool.
However, it was Frances Ashman as Nina that truly bowled me over. She appears first as a mysterious woman with magnetic power over Jay in a short transition between earlier scenes, but soon returns to catalyse the play into its terrific final act. Nina displays both her moral backbone and her conflictions in bold colours, and we buy into it all. As she moralises to both Jay and the audience, there is weight behind her. When I saw the tears in her eyes at the climax, I felt them start in my own too. It is actually she that Jay must overcome.
The finale looks for a time like it will splinter. You will question how all the frayed ends that Jay must tie can be knotted back together and be presented to us as a completed whole. They get there though, and when they do it is a triumph. It is a show that has you buying in by the first scene, and accelerates from thereon. It doesn’t dip; it keeps picking up pace. And you’ll need to be on your feet and banging your hands together at the curtain call something impressive if you want to balance that feeling out.
The Royale is playing at Bush Theatre until 18 April. For more information and tickets, see the Bush Theatre website. Photo by Helen Murray.