Jack Studio Theatre 24 May – 3 June. Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Tom Green’s new play tells the story of Tom Molineaux, who was born a slave in America. 200 years ago, fighting and beating all challengers, he won his freedom, (and a shed load of money) and travelled to England to fight. Trained in England by another ex-slave, Bill Richmond, Molineaux was soon facing the champion, Tom Cribb.
Nathan Medina is wonderful as Molineaux, full of righteous indignation and fury as he realises that the English will do anything to prevent a foreigner, and a black foreigner at that, from being their champion. The huge interest in the sport, and the money changing hands as the odds changed at the end of each round is clearly portrayed, even in this two-hander; and the brutality of bare knuckle boxing is described in eloquent, and strangely poetic detail by celebrated writer Pierce Egan – portrayed here as a charming chancer with a weakness for drink and gambling by Brendan O’Rourke. There is lots of talk of claret being spilled, and injuries that will make you wince, but no actual fighting. Instead Medina shadowboxes with artfully archaic poses and style, pirouetting and lurching around the ring in an exhaustingly physical performance. As he rants about being the best – images of legends like Ali and Frasier spring to mind.
His rise, and consequent fall into alcoholism, consumption and an early, lonely death in Ireland is punctuated by clips of modern boxers talking about their sport, heroes, and emotions after a bout. This felt a little intrusive at first, but pays off massively when they describe how it feels to lose, as Medina sits dejected in his corner.
The language is wonderfully lyrical and Green lays bare the prejudices that are still faced today, and the hypocrisy of the press and their complicit readers without preaching. Kate Bannister’s direction is crisp and ensures the focus is on the two committed actors, keeping the audience’s attention until Egan’s final guilt-ridden speech.
Full of fury and humanity, this beautifully crafted play is well worth seeing whether you love or loathe boxing. A fine tribute to an extraordinary man.