Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, review: Fighting Irish
Fighting Irish, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, to April 16.
Review by John Hudson
Fighting Irish draws upon the lived experiences of the McGough family from Tile Hill, Coventry, in the late 1970s. Three sons of Martin Joseph and Eileen McGough all became accomplished amateur boxers during that decade, one, Jarlath, becoming Irish light-heavyweight champion.
Grandson Jamie is the author of this piece, which deals with far more than simply boxing, as it considers "Irishness" as an identity.
A boxing ring dominates the floor of the auditorium, the audience sat all around, as at an actual fight. The characters of the family are introduced and established in and around the ring. Martin Joe, who encourages his sons whilst at the same time wanting more for them than just boxing success - a finely-judged performance from Daniel Krikler; Eileen their mother, a convincing blend of tenderness and protective ferocity from Shady Murphy; their boxing sons Jarlath, Martin Vincent and political firebrand Sean, and young Jamie, existing and observing on the periphery.
The dramatic focus of the play is Jarlath’s defence of his Irish title in 1979. Even when he won the title the previous year, the Irish boxing establishment made it obvious that they resented these “blow-ins" from England achieving success at the expense of the "native" Irish, even though their Irish parentage gave them the right to compete. In 1979, Jarlath loses in controversial circumstances, is arrested with brother Martin Vincent in the mayhem that follows, and faces trial in Dublin, and possible imprisonment. As Sean muses, in England you’re too Irish, and in Ireland you’re not Irish enough.
Boxing is difficult to stage, but it is done really well here, a lot of thought and creativity having gone into excellent choreography and ensemble work. The physicality of the young actors who play the boxers is also impressive, Louis Ellis, who plays Jarlath, skipping like a pro on one occasion. The ring also doubles as the courtroom when the brothers come to trial - a thoughtful nod to another kind of fight.
And it wouldn’t be a play about Irishness without music - but this is no pub sing-a-long. The three songs sung are probably less well-known to an English audience, but chosen for their dramatic appropriateness, and all the more effective because of it.
This is a first play by Jamie McGough, and it deserves a wide audience for the way it addresses sensitive issues of identity in an entertainingly theatrical way.