Punch at Nottingham Playhouse

Friday 10th – Saturday 25th May

5 *****

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Punch tells the tragic story of how the consequences of a single action can change lives forever.

One night, local lads James and Jacob are separately out on the town. It’s summer in the city and when tensions boil over, Jacob rushes in without thinking and delivers a single killing punch, ending James’ life and devastating his family.

The opening of the play tells the story of Jacob’s childhood, growing up in the crucible of the disadvantaged Meadows area of Nottingham. It’s a familiar yet still compelling inner-city tale of deprivation, drug use, and violence, and also a well-presented and fascinating history lesson.

‘The Medders’ was purpose-built, modelled in the ideals of the English green city, its design and architecture intended to create a green haven to provide respite from the industrial landscape for the residents. Built with their ‘backs to the world’, as the houses face each other, instead, this created a melting pot of anti-social behaviour and crime.

Throughout the play, there’s a laundry-list name-check of street names and landmarks of Nottingham, peppered with local slang and accents that ground us in our city. The painted backdrop shows the city skyline, ever-present and brooding over the action, which takes place on and around a ramped arch that dominates the stage, appearing built of stark concrete and unforgiving steel; well representing the insular labyrinth of jitties, underpasses, and alleys—and in later scenes, the prison cells and walkways.

Special mention must also go to the lighting, designed by Robbie Butler, skillfully and flawlessly executed to set off this almost brutalist set to excellent effect.

David Shields’ portrayal of Jacob is an adept demonstration of stagecraft, a masterclass in nuance and subtle expression. He delivers the pacy script with confidence and establishes an electric rapport with the audience. He addresses us directly at times, explaining his actions, and it is impossible not to be sympathetic as he tells his side of the story.

It’s a powerful and emotional tale, most especially as it’s our local story.

As the play continues, we are introduced to Joan (Julie Hesmondhalgh) and David (Tony Hirst)—obviously devastated by the loss of their precious son and feeling failed by the justice system. They are desperately wanting answers about why this happened, and so a Restorative Justice project eventually brings them face to face with Jacob.

Hesmondhalgh, as expected, is a tour-de-force, and her performance as a devastated mother is skillfully and tear-jerkingly effective. The performances on the whole are quickly raw and gritty, while remaining adept and polished. These strong performances spin a tragic tale into a message of hope and redemption, as Jacob strives to better himself and find reason in his life following his release from prison.

This transformation is only possible through the intercession of Remedi, the Restorative Justice project—through their work with offenders and victims of crimes, helping them to understand each other. Jacob’s case was the first homicide case handled by them.

The power of connection and understanding of this unlikely encounter is inspiring, helping set Jacob on a new path—as he points out, it’s the support and care of the people who could hate him the most that sets him on his way to a better future.

Punch is a poignant and important play that will stay with me for time to come, highly recommended.

AL

There are still some tickets available (https://nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk/events/punch)  to see this must-see theatre at Nottingham Playhouse.