Review: Fighting Irish boxes its way into the hearts of the audience at Coventry theatre

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Fighting Irish, directed by Corey Campbell at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Louis Ellis (Jarlath McGough) and Daniel Krikler (Martin Vincent McGough) in Fighting Irish. Photo: Robert Day
Louis Ellis (Jarlath McGough) and Daniel Krikler (Martin Vincent McGough) in Fighting Irish. Photo: Robert Day

Prejudice is never a simple thing. To be both Irish in England and at the same time English in Ireland is to occupy a difficult position from which you can hardly win. So you fight.

What else can you do if you want to retain some sense of pride in who you are and where you come from? But which side are you on?

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For some the fight is political. Other express it in violence. For the McGough family, actual long-term Irish residents of Coventry, its boxing. The McGough boys are boxers, and though Jarlath McGough (Louis Ellis) is a fighter of world-class stature, it’s their mother Eileen (Shady Murphy) who is the one you’d better watch out for. Not that the others are weak. They are proud men, who work hard and put their lives on the line for what they believe in. But it is she who is the engine that drives the family. Her passion, her unswerving commitment to the fight for justice and equality, makes her a difficult one to beat. And she is magnificent.

Fighting Irish, written by Jamie McGough and based on the story his grandmother told, tells the true story of his family in Coventry and Ireland in the late 1970s, when the ‘troubles’ were at their height and whose side you were on really mattered. It tells of how his brother Jarlath made it to the Irish Light Heavyweight championship and won but was denied his honours and a place at the Olympics by the corrupt officials of the Irish boxing authorities of the time. A fight ensued, and a high profile legal case was fought in the full glare of publicity. We see it all. This is a family story, but one with far greater resonances. It tells of a community, and a country, history, and hope, passion and pride, and the will to see things through to the end.

All three layers of the Belgrade’s B2 theatre were packed full on the night I was there and they gave the play one of the loudest standing ovations I have ever witnessed in the theatre. Boxing may or may not be your thing, but by golly the fight scenes were magnificent. The choreography is superb, the actors moving like dancers around the ring, every punch felt, though ’acted’ so as not to hurt. The dialogue was sharp, the arguments keenly informed. There was drinking, there was singing, there was politics, there was pride, but most of all there was love in and around the ring.

Fighting Irish is in a sense a ‘local’ play, and here it was playing on its home ground, so you’d expect it to go down well. But it deserves to be so much more than that. I’d like to see a national tour. I’d like to see it up for whatever awards can come its way. It has something to say about our history and who we are in relation to our neighbours. It is a story that is not over yet, and this telling is a worthy contender on all counts.

Fighting Irish runs at the Belgrade Theatre until April 16. Call 024 7655 3055 or visit belgrade.co.uk to book.