Tom Molineaux was a bare-knuckle boxer, born into slavery in America and who came to England in the 1800s with the intention of becoming heavyweight champion. “They used to make me fight. Now I choose to fight”. Pierce Egan was at the time the leading Irish reporter of sports events and considered to be an important character in boxing history by those in the know. Tom Molineaux the play is about the relationship between these two men, Molineaux’s fights against English champion Tom Cribb, and the ultimate demise of Molineaux at the age of 34.
Molineaux is played by Nathan Medina, with a boxer’s build and who we see dressing and undressing over and over again in the kind of ritual you would expect of a boxer. Egan plays his adversary, but as well as throwing punches (as if he were the opponent) he commentates the action as he goes along. The difficulty is in the fact that this is a two-hander, which is trying to convey scenes of populous excitement (more than 20,000 people watched Molineaux’s two fights against champion Tom Cribb), and despite some nice sparring and some engaging delivery from Brendan O’Rourke playing Egan, the fights themselves are a bit disappointing.
The set is simple but effective. Three sides of the ropes give you all you need for a boxing ring, and the audience is right in the heart of the action.
The tour ends this week at the Jack, but its dates have been rather unusual, in that they have all been located in theatres near to boxing clubs. More than just a play, writer Tom Green, whose collaboration with the Jack began when he won their Write Now Festival for emerging playwrights, has been into the boxing clubs to meet the people training there, and done engagements and workshops with them. Some of the footage is interspersed with the play as we watch. I found this an interesting extra facet to the theatrical performance. I met Kate Bannister, artistic director at the Jack and director of Tom Molineaux, earlier in the year and I was fascinated to hear about the Jack’s desire to engage with the community in this way, to encourage the separate worlds of boxing and theatre to collide. I’m sure the men, women and young people at Double Jab boxing club in New Cross got a lot out of it too.
The story of Tom Molineaux is a sad one to witness, as he ends up fighting in exchange for alcohol, and dying at a very young age, but it is an important one to know about. Tom Green links the two men together as two immigrants drawn to each other. He also makes this meaningful for the modern day audience, not only by showing the films taken of local boxers, but also by exposing one man’s real struggle against the white boxing world in England at that time and with his own personal demons.
hattydaze rating: ***/*****
I attended Tom Molineaux courtesy of press tickets. Tom Molineaux plays at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 3rd June 2017. There may be a few tickets left at this link. More detail about the project here.