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Punch - Theatre Review

“Punch” delivers a gripping real-life narrative with masterful precision. Set in The Meadows, Nottingham, the play introduces us to Jacob, portrayed with captivating depth by David Shields. His Saturday nights are a blur of urban crime, as he and his friends navigate the city’s streets, fuelled by alcohol, drugs and adrenaline. 

Punch Cast
Cast: Shalisha James-Davis (left), David Shields (centre), Tony Hirst (right) and Emma Palland (far right)

One fateful evening — outside a Yates in Old Market Square — alters the course of Jacob’s life forever, as a foolish act of violence has fatal consequences. Based on the tragic events surrounding the death of James Hodgkinson, this productions keeps audiences on the edge of their seats, immersed in a story that resonates deeply. Upon his release from prison, Jacob grapples with a sense of aimlessness, seeking vindication and understanding. The parents of the punch victim Joan and David, portrayed by Julie Hesmondhalgh and Tony Hirst, ask to meet Jacob in their search for answers. From here a journey of ‘Restorative Justice’ begins. Against all odds, a connection is forged, offering Jacob a chance at redemption.

This production is deeply rooted in Nottingham, with many cast members and creatives hailing from the city, including the renowned double Olivier award-winning writer, James Graham. The play is peppered with local reference that evoke laughter and nods of recognition from the audience — I would, however, be interested to see how these nuances translate to an audience outside of Nottingham. The stage (Anna Fleischle), lighting (Robbie Butler), and sound design (Alexandra Faye Braithwaite), though simple, were expertly executed, seamlessly transporting the audience through shifts in time and place. Artistic director Adam Penford deserves commendation for skilfully bringing his vision to life, ensuring that every aspect of the production sang in perfect harmony.

Punch theatre
A touching moment. Julie Hesmondhalgh (left), Tony Hirst (right)

David Shields delivers a realistic embodiment of the stereotypical lower-class youth, often found lingering in Nottingham. Breaking from convention, the ‘bad guy’ is the focal point of the performance. It is quite jarring for the audience to be rooting for the ‘villain’ of the performance, but this hits on one of the main themes of the play: the possibility of transformation, to challenge the audience’s belief that ‘once a criminal, always a criminal.’ The use of multirole in the show makes the cast of six feel like a carousel of characters, with the phenomenal Emma Pallant showing her characterisation skills, and ability to perform a quick change — I was convinced she had an identical twin backstage! 

Nottingham Playhouse, in collaboration with its partners, has gone beyond mere theatrical production, curating a comprehensive schedule of talks addressing the issues raised, erecting the ‘Talking Circle’ outside the theatre, and providing extensive support for those affected by such violence. A personal highlight for me arose when the characters discuss the local council, prompting a unified response from the audience in light of recent cuts to arts funding — they really do prioritise potholes over people. 

The different gangs of Nottingham. Shalisha James-Daivs (left), David Shields (centre), Emma Pallant (right)

If you are from Nottingham, then “Punch” is a must see show, the quality of storytelling is breathtaking. It stands as a testament to the remarkable caliber of theatre produced at Nottingham Playhouse, skilfully tackling a sensitive and challenging narrative with authenticity and enduring relevance. “Punch” runs until Saturday the 25th of May 2024. 

Punch cast
The cast during a 'night out' scene.


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