fighting in the ring

Louis Ellis (Jarlath McGough) and Daniel Krikler (Martin Vincent McGough. Pictures: Robert Day.

Fighting Irish

Coventry Belgrade B2


Fighting Irish? Sounds intense. Before reading a summary one had no idea what to expect. Drogheda and the Boyne? The doomed Easter Rising? Michael Collins versus De Valera? The Troubles? Someone even suggested the 1840's potato famine.

But no, hugely gifted playwright Jamie McGough has crafted a true story about his own family. It’s a story of falling out which, as we’re told, knows little reconciliation.

But amid its feuds, a family that migrated to England ‘as so many were force to do’ indeed to here in  Coventry, but retaining, as many of their quite gentle accents assure us, strong and deep roots to their motherland, it does focus, vividly, on a remarkable feat: the winning in the late Seventies – a thrilling achievement which has us all at the edge of our seats - of the Irish light heavyweight championship by the oldest, Jarlath (Louis Ellis, making his professional debut, and how truly impressive he is. He, acts gloriously, makes a very attractive central figure  – and supplies real variety too - from beginning to end.).

Seated squarely around, we’re drawn in to the multicolour boxing ring (Patrick Connellan); grabbed and gripped by every moment of the beautifully, graceful managed, captivating fights – the Belgrade’s director Corey Campbell was also the Fight Director, and the sharpness, subtlety, detail – one might actually say brilliance - of everything that he brought into the ring was fabulously inventive and breathtakingly well managed.

fighting brothers

Jarlath and Martin

But these things apart, why was this play, and this production, so special? One major element was the pacing. It’s there in McGough’s astute script itself (amazingly he was, a few years ago, an international boxing champion himself, keeping up the family name), but it was there in Campbell’s handling of it, continually and without exception. as well.

We miss nothing and absorb everything. It’s not often you hear exchanges of word, argument and dialogue, so bravely fast delivered, so exultantly and exaltingly quick, so snappy, crazily and stubbornly, and for them to work. Every time. Too swift a spoken word, and the pacing can quite quickly become tiresome, even tedious. Yet every utterance here was as if tutored and primed by a voice trainer. Somehow they got it all right. Time and again. That alone was a triumph.

That’s partly why we were drawn in, excited, mesmerised by the way the text – Jarlath’s 1978 conquest and victory in the unique Irish National Stadium – the youngest ever, although ‘my title held for 20 years’ - smashed into us and hurtled by. It seized us, almost electrocuted us, and refused to let us go, even when the Irish Boxing Association disqualifies him the next year. But none of this could work without a cast of considerable talent, and a lot of clever teamwork. Communicating became a kind of passing the torch; and in slick and pretty serious verbal exchange they handed it over impeccably.

Who does one pick out? Well, it seems gratuitous given the overall, unbeaten talent and excellence. Perhaps curiously I would pick out Coventry University trained George McClusky, who made of a uniformed Garda (Police) member a tremendously well delivered – and more often than not wise – figure. His interventions, always sensible, move the script along. Someone, has to keep an eye on the feuding brothers, and act as pacifying, commonsense mother (nan) Eileen (Shady Murphy, who emerges as a shrewd, understanding, prudent and perspicacious materfamilias), the dad, also Martin (the hugely experienced Colm Gormley) with four boys to control, has to be a much firmer, occasionally aptly browbeating character.

But one of the most attractive, touching sequences was that at the start between the alluring, delightful Jarlath and his trainer, a fabulous instructor named Billy Duffin (Andrew Fettes).


Louis Ellis, left, Dan McGarry (top), Eddy Payne (bottom), Daniel Krikler.

The latter had about him some of the generosity, caring, affection and devotion of, say, a Pete Postlethwaite. Their interaction was particularly moving. It was a generation gap that opened doors to the boy. Billy, who is prepared to have a row with the Referee, cares about Jarlath, with almost beautiful loyalty and Jarlath replies with attention and virtual almost – perhaps actual - love to his guide and mentor. That opening scene was, frankly, beautiful.

Who else was there who not only kept this show afloat, but lifted it to the remarkable standards it produced throughout? Keith Dunphy takes a turn as Referee in the ring before adjusting to become one of the good sense commentors who helps intermittently to add calming influence. Dan McGarry abandons his ringside loudhailer to preside over the undue (1979) case which will ultimately, fortunately, acquit the McGough of violent affray.

But the sharpest of these is Christian James, who plays Sean, the (presumably) brother now turned doctor. There’s a fair amount of flitting round, or more often round the back and sides of the audience. Sean appears in flurries more often than most, and – English based though he is – it is he who delivers the most articulate objections to ‘authority’; ‘Authority attacks all our lives’; ‘It’s a long game here, like Vietnam’; ‘Corrupt authority is everywhere’. Actually the judge (Dan McGarry, previously loudspeaker wielding, but now presumably a magistrate) who hears the case against the two boys charged with affray or even riot - Daniel and Martin junior: they are constantly at each other’s throats and he  is more than happy to preside over their acquittal. Jimmy is the youngest, and shyly innocent.

It's this England-Ireland tension that forms the key to Jamie McGough’s script line. It offers a kind of alternating, or perhaps husbanding of, England (here, aptly, Coventry) and Ireland (made obvious not only by Jarlath’s struggles and amazingly exciting victory.

The latter is obviously very much part of the story (the other McGoughs, Martin junior and the youngest, Jimmy - Daniel Krikler and Peter Losasso), emphasised by some very good, sometimes gentle Irish accents; although occasionally we’re not quite sure which side of the Irish Sea we are.

Just here and there the cast breaks into song, en masse. ‘Our Nation once again’ is the most lively and animated. Which nation do the family belong to? England or Ireland? Or both. Actually the (roughly) ten man band, including as many three accordions, fiddle and pipe offered us a bright, spirted Irish preface; and a guitar and ukulele here and there added character to the onstage script.  

The idea of converting the Belgrade’s B2 theatre audience into a square, periodically bathing everyone in scarlet or light turquoise, is inspired: it gives the boxing ring an ideally placed audience. Spaced around, we’re all the more fascinated; all the more invited in; all the more enticed; allured; occasionally provoked. You could inhale the sweat of the action. Wow! This was the real thing.

Roderic Dunnett


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