IIt’s hard to think of anything less trendy than a piece of nine men knocking each other out. But here they are, with the Shady Murphy matriarch as a single woman, navigating her way through Jamie McGough’s family boxing drama.
The first-time playwright is a relative of Sean, MartinJarlath and Jimmy McGough, four boxing brothers from an Irish Catholic family raised in Coventry.
In 1979 Jarlath was in line to successfully defend his Irish light heavyweight title, but as the play says he faced resistance from officials who had a grudge against original competitors. English. A referee’s decision to disqualify him in the crucial fight sparked a riot and a trial – with Jarlath and Martin in the dock.
So far Rocky, but McGough adds political edge by putting the story in historical context. Christian James plays Sean as a young arsonist more obsessed with the campaign for Irish unification than boxing, despite his own skill in the sport. The treatment of the brothers – too Irish to be English, too English to be Irish – is a metaphor for the historic marginalization of Catholics in Northern Ireland.
It was not just a sporting loss, McGough argues, but a symbol of how the underdog is victimized again and again.
In this way, the play moves from ringside tournament to courtroom drama, intercut with nationalistic rhetoric as McGough updates us on the intersection of bigotry and sport. It’s a lot for the playwright to tackle and it is not certain that this family anecdote, as exciting as it is, can carry as much weight as he wishes. The story remains more particular than universal.
What is unambiguous is the brute force of Corey Campbell’s excellent production. Performed in the round on the set of Patrick Connellan, in the style of the wrestling play Trafford Tanzi by Claire Luckham and Glory by Nick Ahad, he has an exhilarating physique. The handsome cast stomps, punches and sings through a rigorously choreographed spectacle, accurately lit by Joe Hornsby, with Louis Ellis’ Jarlath and Daniel Krikler’s Martin as compelling in their boxing moves as they are touching in their dedication to sporting honor.