Boxing has always been a sport of the common man. In my dad’s day he and his brothers fought in the ring as an alternative to running feral on the streets of south London.
It was a sport that instilled discipline, rules and structure into the lives of poor boys and steered them away from a life of crime or, at the very least, inertia and obesity.
But in America, back at the turn of the 20th century, poor black boys were prevented from having their “Rocky” moment by racism and prejudice.
The heavyweight world champion, hell, the title-holder at every weight, was white. Black boxers could compete for their own titles but they would never be considered truly the best.
All that changed in 1908 with Jack Johnson who broke through the race barrier with a perfectly placed upper cut to become the first black man to hold the heavyweight title.
Marco Ramirez uses Johnson’s story as the basis for The Royale, a knockout boxing drama that gives audiences at London’s Bush Theatre a ringside seat for a thrilling story.
The play could have been a cliché. It could have been the story of an underdog who defeats the odds to become a titleholder.
Yes, the old “triumph over adversity” story is here but it’s bigotry and not ability that takes a pounding.
Director Madani Younis takes Muhammad Ali’s mantra of ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ to heart with original and inspired staging that sees the audience gathered around a boxing ring-sized stage* for a bout lasting six rounds, or 90 minutes in old money.
He strips away the brutality to show a grace and elegance to boxing with never a punch actually making contact. The pugilism is a stylised dance to the rhythmic stomps, claps and thuds of gloves, feet and fists choreographed by movement director Lucie Pankhurst and it is incredibly effective.
In the ring is Jay “The Sport” Jackson, played with conviction by a well-trained and turned out Nicholas Pinnock, who currently stars in Sky Atlantic’s chiller thriller Fortitude.
It’s 1905 and 6’2” Jackson, weighing in at 207lbs, is the Negro Heavyweight Champion – but he wants more. He wants a fight arranged with Bernard “The Champ” Bixby who holds the world title.
Jackson has to sacrifice everything for a chance at the title shot. His sister Nina (a frightening performance by Frances Ashman whose character shows as much verbal tenacity as her brother’s physical prowess) warns him of the possible repercussions.
Out in the streets, all around America, there’s racial unrest with the very real possibility of rioting and attacks on blacks if Jackson wins the fight. She urges him to throw the match.
The tension is palpable as Jackson steps into the ring for the biggest fight of his life. Will he go down or stand his ground?
The intimate surroundings of the Bush Theatre are smokey. There’s a faint smell of sweat and sawdust, the floor is littered with trampled flyers for past matches and the ring basks in a golden glow. All very atmospheric.
It all adds up to the best 90 minutes I’ve spent in a theatre for a long time.
Pinnock’s sparring with challenger Fish Hawkins (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) is as energetic as his verbal battles with his boxing promoter and manager Max (a spot-on turn by Ewan Stewart) and trainer Wynton (Clint Dyer).
Here is a story that doesn’t throw any punches. It captures your imagination with an exciting, physical performance that tells one man’s fight to change history.
Pinnock’s Jackson has the arrogant swagger and confidence of a true champ but he’s initially floored by a below-the belt jab from Max who says Bixby would never fight a black man.
“Bixby’s never fought a negro. No Heavyweight Champion ever has. I don’t like it either but that’s the spread. It ain’t like he’s a bigot. He’s got no problem with ‘em. Likes ‘em fine. His driver’s a negro”.
The Royale sees heavyweight performances from the entire cast. Nina’s rounds with her brother are intense and intimidating. She’s an old school slugger who uses every dirty trick to persuade Jay not to fight.
Wynton, Fish and Max are stereotypes but there’s nothing wrong with that. Your sympathy always lies with the play’s true underdog, and Fish has it from the off, while Wynton gives us the familiar trainer who leads with quiet encouragement and wisdom from the corner.
But ultimately all eyes are on Pinnock and he comes out a champ. This is one actor who will go the distance.
The Royale’s a belter. It runs at The Bush Theatre until April 18.
*Max announces to the audience that the title bout is to be fought ‘in these 20 square feet’. Er, that’s just a very snug five feet by four. #maths.