Tom Molineaux, Brockley Jack Studio Theatre – Review

four-stars

Tom Molineaux by Tom Green
Brendan O’Rouke (Pierce Egan)  and Nathan Medina (Tom Molineaux)

Tom Molineaux, the 19th century boxer is unfamilar to most people. However, it is precisely because he is largely unknown that makes his story worth telling. Molineaux’s life has featured in other novels and plays, but Tom Green’s account of this pugilist succinctly distils this aspirational… and tragic figure – as much an object of prejudice, as a figure of hubris.

Tom Molineaux by Tom Green

Directed by Kate Bannister, Tom Molineaux begins in London in 1810, with Monlineaux (Nathan Medina) making the acquaintance of Pierce Egan (Brendan O’Rourke) – an Irish writer, who was ahead of his time in thinking there was a market for people interested in sports journalism.

Born a slave in Virginia, Molineaux won his freedom by participating in boxing events Stateside and decided to try his luck in England. Officially he crossed the Pond because he had already fought anyone worth a challenge in the States, but reading in between the lines Molineaux’s career opportunities were limited in a country that still had a robust slavery economy. Of course England did too, but most of the UK-bound slaves were later sold on and transfered to plantations overseas…

Molineaux makes his mark quickly and it isn’t long before fights are arranged between himself and the reigning British champion Tom Cobb, for the World title…

Tom Molineaux by Tom Green

So how does one put on a play about 19th century bare-knuckle boxing? Plays like Tanzi Libre and its previous incarnation Trafford Tanzi have featured the actors performing live wrestling within a real ‘ring’. This play, however, has a solution that is as straightforward as it practical, propelling the story on  – with Medina miming the action in tandem with telling his blow-by-blow account to the audience (though O’Rourke stands in for Cobb in the final clash). As the ‘professional orator’, Egan puts his spin on events. Even though he’s very much at home in England, as an Irishman living in London he can distinguish how well an ‘unknown quantity’ like Molineaux can fit in and achieve. His own selfish needs, however, blind him to how much of a friend (or not) he actually is to Molineaux…

Watching this play, I learnt how much the aristocracy profited from the fights in comparison to the boxers themselves… well, to be frank there is no comparison. I found myself thinking in comparative terms, everyone today does well today, (even those in the lower rankings) finding it easier compared to their forebears 200 years ago who had to fight bare-knuckle all the time.

Molineaux’s achievements are all the more extraordinary when you bear in mind he was boxing at a time when slavery was common practise in the Western World. As for Molineaux’s two fights with Cobb, the bouts were laden with symbolic significance – Cobb, a ‘son’ of the slavery capital of the UK versus a former slave from the ‘New World’ fighting the prejudices of the ancien régime, and for his own respect and place in the world. Sadly, had Egan initially supported Molineaux 100%, Molineaux may have listened to him in the later years and not followed his self-destructive path…

The show at relevant points is punctuated with filmed footage of young amateur pugilists, talking about the boxers who they look up to and emulate. While in lesser hands this technique could take the audience ‘out of the show’, in Bannister’s hands it’s a tool for reflection, comparing how things are different (or not) from yesteryear.

This play coincides with the one-year anniversary this month of the death of the boxer of Muhammed Ali. Perhaps it is no coincidence at all, as both boxers had a long-lasting effect on the profession in ways they neither dreamt of or considered. In many ways, Ali is Molineaux’s ‘spiritual heir’ and owes a debt of gratitude to Molineaux for paving the way for all ‘men of colour’ in the sport and for them to be treated as men. Period.

© Michael Davis 2017

Tom Molineaux runs at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until Saturday 3rd June 2017

http://www.brockleyjack.co.uk/portfolio/tom-molineaux/

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