Punch, written and produced by Steve Bird, and directed by Elaine Louise Stewart and Bird, is a drama uncovering what happens when two families collide in a shock tragedy that will change their lives forever. Aiming to raise awareness of death and catastrophic injury from single punch injuries, the play uncovers a single example of how one punch can rock the foundations of family life.
The set shows two family homes, one with crisp white tablecloths, and a graduation photograph and one with an overloaded clothes horse and a tacky fringed lamp. This serves to illustrate that the two families are from different social classes: one with “a house on the hill” and the other on an ill-reputed estate. These differences are highlighted in the beginning of the play where Charles (Ted Grant) bemoans losses on the stock market while Albie (Tommy Tyler Morgan) dejectedly goes over the results of the horse racing. While this relies on stereotypes somewhat, for the purposes of the story the differences in family reputation do play a key role. It also becomes clear throughout the play that Charles has worked his way into his lifestyle, as director Stewart cleverly has Grant veer from his natural broad Yorkshire accent to a more refined conscious way of speaking depending on whom he is speaking to.
The play opens with both Angie (Lily Almond) and Toby (James Lawrence) coming downstairs to where their parents are having breakfast after they have both been out the night before. In Angie’s house there is some concern as her brother, Ben, hasn’t returned home from his own night out. In the other home, it is quickly apparent that Toby is hiding something, and heavy use of foreshadowing enhances the sense that both situations are connected.
It is revealed that Toby had an encounter with Ben the night before, during which Toby, feeling threatened, punched Ben once resulting in Ben being hospitalised. Charles is at first proud of Toby for standing up for himself, but panic descends when he realises the severity of the situation. Against the backdrop of protests from his wife, Clarissa (Christine Corser), Charles quickly begins to formulate strategies to downplay Toby’s involvement and create an image of a violent Ben who got what he deserved. Meanwhile, Angie receives a call from the hospital advising that Ben is there, and the family go to see him before he sadly passes away.
There is some implication early on that the families live next door to each other, but the neighbours they are referring to are other people. It might have been interesting to have a closer relationship between Toby (James Lawrence) and Ben as the dynamic on the situation happening between next door neighbours would be entirely different.
Detective Inspector Tyler (Paul Taylor) begins investigating the case, but his classist attitude and obsession with what he imagines to be Ben’s reputation, create a real sense of unfairness and highlight issues with the justice system. Taylor does a good job of being a sanctimonious and insensitive police officer, but it does appear particularly unusual that he visits both families alone, particularly as he goes to the bereaved family’s home without a Family Liaison Officer and even searches the premises without by himself.
When using drama to raise awareness, it’s important that research of things like procedure is thorough so as not to distract from the importance of the issues being discussed. While it is absolutely true that there are many issues with the police forces of Britain, as the play is not primarily exploring procedural fault, the portrayal of the police work on the case should be fully represented. If the decision to only have one police officer was based on keeping a small cast size in order to focus on the familial relationships, Taylor referring to colleagues off stage, or the role being filled by a Family Liaison Officer rather than the investigating officer, could have resolved this and been used to explore the family dynamic further.
Stewart’s utilising reflections between the two home is a clever use of space and body language which creates a sense of connection between both families beyond the tragedy that has violently brought them together. Stripping the set of both homes back to black in the second half of the play creates a strong sense of emotion and replacing the teacups in both houses with alcohol enhances the feeling of tragedy and people being so lost in grief they don’t know what to do.
The decision has been made not to have Ben appear at all during the play, with his facelessness highlighting the fact that this situation could happen to anyone, however, the portrayal of his character may have enhanced the emotional impact surrounding his death.
There was some tripping over lines by the cast which could be prevented with some of the dialogue being tightened up. There are also a couple of issues with projection so it would be worth the cast bearing in mind that vocal delivery needs to be louder when lines are being delivered away from the audience.
The twist at the end of the play does feel slightly forced and creates a feeling of soap opera drama. The ambiguity of whether Toby’s version of the story was true together with the heavy implication that he had just left Ben in the street could have created a stronger ending with a deeper sense of feeling for both families and their situation.
Grant’s portrayal of the snide father whose primary concern is his own reputation rather than the effect on his wife and son is viscerally uncomfortable. The relationship between Charles and Clarissa is tense and filled with anger which Corser enhances by meek and submissive body language. Lawrence’s awkward and jittery performance contrasting with his outbursts of anger create a good sense of the influence of both his parents as well as the pressure he is under.
There are some powerful scenes, particularly the Jones family returning home from the hospital without Ben. These are particularly enhanced by Almond’s strong, emotional performance. The anger felt in the Jones household becomes all consuming and the fractious impact on the relationship between Albie and Mary (Gemma Knox) is heartbreaking. The dynamic of the three actors together is good and creates a sense of a family surviving against the odds.
Punch is an interesting play which would be worthy of further development and explorations of the themes it explores. The cast have clearly worked hard and researched the issues under the direction of Stewart to raise awareness of a situation which isn’t often talked about but unfortunately more common than people realise.
Reviewer: Donna M Day
Reviewed: 23rd June 2023
North West End UK Rating: