Interview: Roy Williams on Sucker Punch, ‘The warning signs are there’

Roy Williams’ Sucker Punch brilliantly explored being young and black in the 80s through the lens of two best mates who have spent their youth growing up in a boxing gym.

When the play first debuted in a sell-out run at Royal Court Theatre in 2010 it made a star of its young lead Daniel Kaluuya, who picked up the 2010 Critics Circle and 2010 Evening Standard Awards for Outstanding Newcomer.

For Williams, the play won the Alfred Fagon Award, The Writers Guild Award for Best Play and it was nominated for an Olivier for Best New Play. More recently Williams has earned plaudits for his Death of England trilogy, written alongside Clint Dyer and produced by the National Theatre.

Sucker Punch returns in a production that will tour nine Theatre Nation Partner theatres until June, beginning at the Queens Theatre Hornchurch who have produced this production.

Ahead of opening at the Queens Theatre last week, we heard from Williams what it’s like to see the play returning to the stage and the question about being Black and British that hasn’t gone away.

Shem Hamilton and Christian Alifoe in Sucker Punch. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Interview with Roy Williams

Are you looking forward to seeing your 2010 boxing play performed again?

Yeah. I’m really looking forward to seeing all that director Nathan Powell has done with Sucker Punch. I am happy that he’s making it very much his own. It feels as though he’s taking it a stage further than the original Royal Court production. He’s adding some imaginative stuff to amplify what’s going on inside the main character’s head.

This play helped make a star of Daniel Kaluuya, didn’t it?

He is so talented. People loved Daniel’s performance in the role of Leon when the play was first done. He was so intense and so athletic. He really went through some tough training. He won an Evening Standard Award and we got nominated for an Olivier.

What is the approach to the fight scenes this time?

The director Nathan workshopped with actors and a boxing coach called Garry Cooke who trains young kids at the Repton Boxing Club in East London, where the club motto is No Guts, No Glory. I love the fact that the Royal Court production also had a link with Repton as that’s where they got the boxing ring from for the set – it was like stepping into a working boxing gym in the 80s, with the seats all around 360.

Liam Smith and Shem Hamilton in Sucker Punch. Photo Manuel Harlan

Tell us about the battle sparked outside the ring too?

When the rivalry swings up in the play between Leon and his sparring partner Troy they end up pretty much at war with each other, in terms of what it means to them to be Black and British.

How does your Eighties setting echo these themes?

I think that era of Thatcherism really encouraged a sense that we’ve all got to be better than somebody else. There was no real sense that we should work together to help each other. We’re still living in a selfish age and we’re in danger of it getting more so. The warning signs are there. And, in terms of what it means to be Black and British, that question has not gone away. People still ask us, due to the colour of our skin, are you really British?

Sucker Punch is at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch until 15 April then touring