The Royale – Review

Nicholas Pinnock in The Royale. Images Helen Murray.
Nicholas Pinnock in The Royale. Images Helen Murray.

“And now, the fight you came for!”

An on-form Nicholas Pinnock returned to the ring last night to defend his title in Marco Ramirez’s thrilling, electrifying, story of boxing and bigotry, The Royale.

It first premiered at London’s Bush Theatre in 2015 and was an immediate success. It has now returned, in a new venue, Notting Hill’s Tabernacle, and with some cast changes, but it is better than ever.

It’s not just the performances, which are, of course, outstanding, but the complete package which makes this ingenious and originally-told drama so engrossing.

The Royale is a play in six rounds and director Madani Younis brings authenticity to this story of the first black world heavyweight boxing champ with the aid of Jaimie Todd’s evocative stage design and some seriously atmospheric sound and lighting from Ed Clarke and James Whiteside.

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Creatively, the production packs a powerful punch. There’s an ethereal feeling in the room. We’re about to watch a fable unfold. A story so remarkable that it has become the stuff of legend.

Even its telling is astonishing and poetic (and not just Pinnock’s fancy footwork), a beautifully choreographed tableau of rhythmic clapping, stamping, glove-thumping and coordinated movement where not a jab or uppercut makes contact. Hell, the fighters don’t even face each other. It’s a knockout.

The audience arrives to find the seating on all four sides of a rope-less boxing ring stage. The air smells of sawdust, sweat and smoke. The lights illuminate the ring. The rest of the world doesn’t exist. Only here. This is where the battle will be decided.

It’s the beginning of the 20th century and Pinnock plays Jay “The Sport” Jackson – very loosely based on real-life boxer Jack Johnson – who steamrollers through contenders until the only person left to fight is the (white) retired world heavyweight champion.

But in a racially segregated America that seems an impossible dream and one which, if fulfilled, could spark violence and retribution throughout the country.

The Royale, more than anything else, is the story of an underdog who is determined to make something of himself at any cost.

Joining Pinnock in the ring is the intense Martins Imhangbe, who plays his latest conquest and now sparring partner, Fish. I make no bones about it, here is a charismatic and talented young actor, with real stage presence, who deserves a big future.

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Jude Akuwudike, as Jackson’s grizzled and devoted trainer, Wynton, is textbook. We know him from every boxing film. Been with his boy for years, knows the inside track on what makes him tick, is there in the corner to mop up the blood, boost his confidence and play surrogate dad.

But Akuwudike’s subtle, nuanced performance is spot on as is that of Patrick Drury, returning as boxing promoter Max (but who also doubles as an entire press corps firing off questions to Jackson at a conference – again skilfully presented by Younis).

Jackson is always circumspect as to where he originated, never letting the public and press discover too much about his background. But haunting him, and driving him on, is the memory of his fearless sister, Nina.

Franc Ashman gives a bold and feisty performance as the sibling. Her footwork in the ring as her brother fights for the title is clever and flawlessly achieved.

Yet nothing can detract from Nicholas Pinnock’s championship turn as Jay Jackson – “So good at the sport that they call him “The Sport.”

Physically, he has trained hard to recreate the body of a heavyweight boxer. In one scene he puts on the gloves to pulverise a punchbag and it’s a genuine workout. Artistically, Pinnock gives a piledriver performance as this ambitious, talented sports star who fought prejudice to become the best.

The Royale runs at The Tabernacle until November 26.

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