Southwark Playhouse – until 27 October 2018
Joy Wilkinson’s women’s boxing melodrama The Sweet Science of Bruising has taken more than a decade to get into shape but it was worth all the training sessions and rewrites. It landed a knockout punch at its opening bout at Southwark Playhouse and looks like being a real contender for success.
With a winning combination of heavyweight storytelling and punchy performances, Bruising gives a ringside seat not only to the true story of women boxers in the Victorian times but also the era’s fight for female emancipation. That, in turn, makes it hugely timely as gender equality, spousal abuse, and the exploitation of women remain in the news.
None of Troupe Theatre’s accomplished female cast would last five seconds against, say, Olympic boxing champ, Nicola Adams. But Fiona Skinner looks fiercesome as Northern scrapper Polly Stokes. I certainly wouldn’t step into a ring with her. She’s a really useful southpaw. Skinner’s Polly is a proper little dynamo, quick-tempered, excitable, and landing credible punches and shadow dancing around the stage.
She spars with her “brother” Paul (James Baxter looking equally authentic with the gloves on), trading blows with a punchbag and even gets down for a few press-ups. It’s clear she’s trained hard to look the part.
Wilkinson uses four protagonists to tell her story. Each has very personal reasons for putting on the gloves, mostly involving abuse or thwarted ambitions. The foursome dream of freedom to decide their own futures and, inexplicably, believe that getting into the ring will give them that release.
What none seem to grasp is that despite all the rhetoric they are still being used by men, or, in this case, one particular man, Bruce Alexander’s opportunistic fight promoter Professor Charlie Sharp, who sees a profit to be made in a freak show.
Nurse Violet Hunter (Sophie Bleasdale) fights, in her off time, for equality. She wants to be a doctor but her ambitions are unlikely to come to fruition because of her sex.
Polly has come to London with Paul who is determined to find success in the ring while Irish prostitute, Matilda “Matty” Blackwell (Jessica Regan), is tired of being hurt and abused by punters on the street.
The most unlikely challenger is posh, inhibited, housewife and mother, Anna Lamb (Kemi-Bo Jacobs), whose life is made hell by her controlling and sadistic husband.
At one point we see how ruthless he is towards timid wife and it’s harrowing to watch. No wonder she wants to protect herself but her character is the weakest and unlikeliest of the lot.
The stories of each woman wrap around the brief fight scenes where Sharp has dressed the women up in corsets and gloves to titillate the crowds.
Alison de Burgh has done a great job in choreographing their moves although Skinner is the only boxer who looks truly at home in the ring.
Troupe has attracted a top class cast for this production. Bruce Alexander is a well known theatre and TV veteran and he uses his considerable experience to create a roguish and charismatic hustler.
Similarly, Caroline Harker adds weight as Violet’s controlling Aunt George and James Baxter (Emmerdale’s Jake Doland and Leroy in Still Open All Hours) looks every inch an aspiring working class slugger.
The story is overripe and predictable in places but it does offer a thrilling night’s entertainment. You want to boo at Lamb’s evil husband (Joel Coen), cheer during the fight scenes, and throw your support behind the four women making history.
Jessica Regan’s turn as the defiled Matty is truly moving and brought a lump to my throat on opening night. She’s symbolic of so many impoverished women who were left no choice but to sell themselves in order to survive.
The science to fighting isn’t sweet. It’s one person inflicting maximum damage on another and nothing more.
I grew up meeting friends of my father – he and they were amateur and professional champions around London – and witnessing the results of too many punches to the head.
Boxing doesn’t offer freedom but it can, for many working classes, teach discipline and survival techniques.
This group prove, if proof was necessary, that their real fight was outside the ring and not on a spit and sawdust canvas at The Angel Amphitheatre, punching other women in front of baying men.
Book yourself a ringside seat for this bold little belter.
The Sweet Science of Bruising runs in The Little, Southwark Playhouse, until October 27.
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