'Tom Molineaux' packs a punch
Luke G. Williams
Luke G. Williams is spellbound by a new play about the careers of Tom Molineaux and Pierce Egan ...
Pierce Egan and Tom Molineaux are two of the most significant - and fascinating - characters from boxing's long, often distinguished and frequently disreputable history.
Egan was a literary titan who probably did more than any other writer in history to formulate the concept of sport as the subject of popular journalism. Molineaux, meanwhile, was the second black boxer to achieve considerable fame in England - his mentor and trainer Bill Richmond (the subject of my 2015 book 'Richmond Unchained') having carved out a successful pugilistic career prior to Molineaux's arrival on these shores from America.
While Richmond never managed to compete for the Championship of England, Molineaux twice contested the crown in his titanic showdowns against champion Tom Cribb in 1810 and 1811 - bouts which Richmond helped promote and which have a good case to be recognised as the first major international sporting spectacles.
Although the careers of Richmond, Molineaux, Egan and Cribb are fairly well known among the boxing cognoscenti - having been the subject of the 1997 novel 'Black Ajax' by George MacDonald Fraser, a Channel 4 documentary in 2004 and my aforementioned book 'Richmond Unchained', the general public remain largely unaware of the incredible twists and turns of their lives, and the hugely significant cultural and social impact all four men had on the fabric of British history.
Therefore, for someone like myself who has devoted more than a decade to researching this truly extraordinary period in sporting and social history, the appearance of Tom Green's play 'Tom Molineaux' this month has been a real thrill.
Green's two-hander mixes a dramatic imagining of what the relationship between young contender Molineaux and rising scribe Egan might have been like with the factual details of Molineaux's career and extracts from Egan's original work - with thrilling and illuminating results.
The simple but dramatic staging - designed by Francis Alston - is enhanced by the intimate venue of the Jack Studio Theatre, enabling the audience to almost reach out and touch the actors while also propelling us back in time to Richmond's training rooms and the heart of Molineaux's many memorable battles.
Nathan Medina's Molineaux mixes formidable physicality with humour, passion and pathos in an extraordinary performance - at times his face and body shimmer with sweat and triumph, while at other moments the sadness and poignancy he evinces are profoundly affecting.
The 'boxing scenes' - the majority of which see Molineaux fight invisible foes - are a tour de force and an eloquent reflection not only of Medina's talent and commitment, but of director Kate Bannister's confidence and dramatic flair and RC Annie's expert choreography - impressively, the boxing stances adopted throughout are pretty authentic recreations of the Georgian bare-knuckle style, rather than redolent of the wholly different modern style of boxing.
In Brendan O'Rourke's charming but somewhat shifty Egan, Medina's Molineaux has a perfect foil. Spindly and evasive, but also extremely charming, O'Rourke evokes Egan's ambition, suggesting he was as much driven by a desire for acceptance and acclaim as Molineaux. Indeed, Green clearly sees these two immigrants - an Irishman and a black American former slave - as bound by a shared desire to overcome barriers, whether they be social, monetary or ethnic, and thus make their mark on the world.
The script is tightly constructed and strikes a surefooted balance, mixing Egan's original sources with other historical facts and a fair degree of dramatic licence. It's a canny choice to have focused on two of the most compelling but also enigmatic figures from the golden age of 'boxiana' and, impressively, Green manages to illuminate numerous social and cultural contexts and factors without ever coming across as didactic.
Above all, though, the most impressive aspect of the play is it that places Egan and Molineaux's humanity at centre stage - allowing us to feel we have shared 75 minutes or so with two of the most important yet flawed individuals from arguably British boxing's most historically significant era.
Molineaux's final monologue, in particular, in which he delcares: "I am full of pain. Pain stemming deep down and branching through my limbs and to the very tips of my fingers..." is particularly moving.
In summation? A performance which is highly recommended for all pugilist specialists, as well as anyone with an interest in history and humanity. Grab a ticket as quick as you can, for there are only a few performances left.
Tom Molineaux by Tom Green is playing from 31 May-3 June at the Jack Studio Theatre, London SE4 and on 30 May at GLYPT, London SE18. See www.tom-molineaux.uk for details.
Special ticket offer in association with Boxing Monthly:
Tickets to see Tom Molineaux at Jack Studio London SE4 for £11 / £9 when you enter to code "1810" (performances on 31st May & 1st June only) http://www.brockleyjack.co.uk/ portfolio/tom-molineaux/