Punch review – James Graham’s tragic study of a fatal blow

A teenager kills a trainee paramedic with a single strike on a night out in Nottingham in this deftly directed play based on a real story.

Take note: this is not a play about the eponymous magazine specialising in scathing political satire, although such fare might more readily be expected from playwright James Graham. This is about the ripple effects of a single punch, thrown by a teenager on a night out, with fatal consequences.

Fabulously directed by Adam Penford, it is based on a memoir by Jacob Dunne who killed 28-year-old trainee paramedic James Hodgkinson in this way. Its Nottingham staging is relevant: it is where Graham and Jacob (played by David Shields) grew up, the latter on a council estate that slowly sucks him into gang culture.

 

It begins as a jittery, adrenalised monologue, Jacob’s cocky delivery charged with the indifference of a 19-year-old selling drugs, getting drunk and psyching up for the “drama” at the end of a pub crawl. (“A fight’s coming tonight,” he says. “I can’t wait.”)

A propulsive and at times poetic double narrative, it rewinds to his childhood in a single parent household while also following the events that lead up to the punch. We head into a terrible convergence of these two strands, with an intractable buildup of dread, the pace speeding up, the action boiling over, then pulling back for pools of shocked stillness.

It is a powerful study of problematic young masculinity that defines itself through swagger, reputation and recreational violence. Jacob’s endeavour to remember what happened is a form of therapeutic memory retrieval and a facing up to what he did. But typically for Graham, the drama also zooms out to the bigger picture, bringing its own politics around issues of social deprivation in an era of austerity, the prison system and young offender institutions.

The spare set, designed by Anna Fleischle, gives unhampered space to the drama of light and sound: the blare of nightclub music as Jacob goes out partying, the glare of lights that bring horror and reckoning. Both fill the stage and seem to surround us, too.

Every actor shines, from Shields’ agile and energetic performance to the fleet ensemble who double up, at speed, to play characters around him, including James’s parents (played by Julie Hesmondhalgh and Tony Hirst, both tragically stoic).

This is, ultimately, a story about restorative justice. For a long time, we get only Jacob’s story, which offers great insight into the everyday tragedy of youth violence. But often it feels uncomfortably too much his story. That is rectified when he finally meets James’s parents in an incredibly potent and emotional scene. The discomfort lifts and James emerges as an absent character. The ending is perhaps too like a documentary: do we really need to see Jacob giving his TEDx talk, or the probation officer’s diatribe on the cost of fixing street pot-holes? But it is also a way of giving a terribly sad story as gentle an ending as it can have.

What is extraordinary is that tucked inside this grave account of crime, punishment, forgiveness and rehabilitation is warmth and humour. You leave the auditorium feeling hope.

At Nottingham Playhouse until 25 May.

Guardian Review by Arifa Akbar

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