By James Graham
Nottingham Playhouse

Can James Graham do anything wrong? The 41-year-old writer, who has won Oliviers, BAFTAs and a Royal Television Society award, has returned to the stage with possibly his most powerful, poignant piece yet: Punch.

The play is based on the book Right from Wrong by Jacob Dunne, a true-life account of how teenager Jacob threw a single punch in an unprovoked attack on a Nottingham street. James Hodgkinson fell, hit his head and died.

Jacob was sentenced to 30 months in prison for manslaughter. On his release, his life was heading nowhere until the parents of his victim asked to meet him after contacting a restorative justice charity.

The cast of Punch. Above: David Shields as Jacob Dunne [images: Marc Brenner]

It’s a disturbing, challenging yet hopeful story. Graham brings it to life with realism, tension, pathos and potency, aided in no small measure by Adam Penford’s masterful direction and a superb cast.

Derbyshire-born David Shields gives a phenomenal performance as Jacob. He starts off as a confident, swaggering youth who dabbles in selling drugs, wanting to achieve notoriety in The Meadows, an inner-city area of Nottingham. He discovers that violence is one way to get accepted by his peers when there is little hope for the future. Diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD and autism, Jacob realises that “doing bad things creates good feelings”.

Shields’s change into a disturbed young man who has to come to terms with his actions is outstanding. Yet he rises to another level with tears in his eyes as he contemplates the suffering faced by his victims’ parents, who need answers about what happened on that fateful night. Shields metamorphoses yet again at the end, becoming a reluctant but self-assured public speaker as he encourages others not to follow the path he took.

While Shields is astonishingly good, there are excellent performances from the whole cast. Julie Hesmondhalgh shines as Joan, the victim’s mother who gradually wants her son’s death not to be in vain. She decides to meet Jacob to consider whether she can show him forgiveness. Her attitude is contrasted with that of her husband David, skilfully portrayed by Tony Hirst, who is unable to forgive but touchingly shakes hands with Jacob as conciliation increases.

Julie Hesmondhalgh as Joan and Tony Hirst as David

Hesmondhalgh, Hirst, Alec Boaden, Shalisha James-Davis and Emma Pallant play a variety of roles including thugs, family members, police officers, teachers and a probation officer, commendably differentiating between them with only minor costume changes.

On press night, Graham’s script with references to the Old Market Square, cricket at Trent Bridge and gangs from different parts of the city went down well with a Nottinghamshire audience. But the play’s themes of justice, class, the education system and alleged government incompetence will resonate with audiences all over the country. Punch may have a life after Nottingham Playhouse.

Penford describes Graham as “an international writer of unparalleled talent”. Punch confirms just how great a talent Graham is. The audience on press night who as one got to their feet at the end is further proof, if that were needed.

* This review originally appeared on the British Theatre Guide website


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