Theatre Review: Punch

Words: Ian C Douglas
Friday 10 May 2024
reading time: min, words

The Playhouse's world premiere unveils a world-class production 

Punch PROD 425 Enhanced NR

Nottingham Playhouse has commissioned a bold and challenging piece of theatre, Punch, that will be one of the landmark productions this year. Bold and challenging, because it dramatizes a tragic cause célèbre, that many of us will remember from the news headlines. 

A quick recap: a young paramedic enjoying his night out in Slab Square is punched once by a perfect stranger. A nineteen-year-old, coked-up youth from the Meadows. James, the paramedic, is killed when his head hits the concrete paving slabs. Jacob, the ‘one punch assassin’ is locked up for thirty months at Glen Parva.

But this is not James' story. It is Jacob’s. And how James' parents reached out to Jacob through Remedy, (a restorative justice organisation) and changed his life. Until we get to the present day, when Jacob has become a tireless campaigner and activist against male violence and one-punch killings.

Kudos to Playhouse director Adam Penford, who heard Jacob’s podcast and realised the importance of this story. Adam approached the writer of TV’s Sherwood, James Graham, to turn this real-life drama into a script. An excellent script that neither shirks the issues raised, judges no one, and has us in tears by the end.

A scene of metal bars which perhaps symbolise captivity on many levels

David Shields plays Jacob to perfection: the accent, the swagger, the bravado, the hurt. It must be a gruelling role to play in a production lasting over two hours. But he makes it his own and infects the audience with his energy throughout. And of course, Coronation Street alumni Julie Hesmondhalgh brings her weight to the production, playing Joan, James' mum. She is superb, as ever. And the rest of the cast work hard and lift the performance. Other characters in the play include social workers, probation officers, nurses, all making a difference. None of these professions are stereotyped or turned into a figure of fun (as so often happens in the media).

One surprise is that there are moments of laugh-out-humour alongside the darkness, grief and pain. But above all, this is a Nottingham play. As local as mushy peas and loaded with references that rang true for the audience.     

The stage is minimal, an overpass that can double for a nightclub. A scene of metal bars which perhaps symbolise captivity on many levels. The architectural maze of the Meadows as much as a young offenders prison. Ultimately, the bars of a society that represses its citizens.

The music was good, always keeping in the background so you hardly noticed it, but adding to the suspense or sadness.

In conclusion, if we were awarding up to five stars this would be a ten. At the end, we could not get on to our feet fast enough to deliver the standing ovation. If you see only one play this season, make sure it is this.

Punch plays at Nottingham Playhouse from Friday 10th May until Saturday 25th of May 2024.

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