Originally performed at the Bush Theatre in 2015, Marco Ramirez’ play The Royale is being revived, during the Bush’s period of refurbishment, at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill. It’s a good sign when a new play is revived so soon after its initial performance, and I had high hopes for it.
The play is inspired by the real-life story of Jack Johnson, the first African-American world heavyweight boxing champion. The stage is laid out like a boxing ring, with the audience on all four sides, and the play is told in six rounds. We meet champion boxer Jay ‘The Sport’ Jackson as he fights with a challenger – some clever stagecraft at work – and gives us an insight into his determined personality. He employs the unsuccessful challenger Fish as a sparring partner, and with the help of his trainer Wynton and manager Max sets out to bring the reigning champion out of retirement for one more bout. The only problem – he’s white, and might not take kindly to a challenge from a black man.
The play grips from the start, giving us an insight into Jay’s mind and the forces empowering him in his determination to become the boxing champion. The performances are strong, particularly Nicholas Pinnock as Jay. The Royale uses boxing as a metaphor for black success which breeds resentment among the white community – unfortunately highly relevant in today’s climate. It weaves scenes within one another in a highly skilled way, leading to a powerful ending. At only ninety minutes long, the play certainly packs a punch – excuse the pun – and will be one of the more memorable theatrical experiences I’ve had this year.