Photo: Mitzi de Margary

THE SWEET SCIENCE OF BRUISING is one of the must-see shows of 2019, currently playing at the wonderfully atmospheric Wilton’s Music Hall until June 29th, produced by Ashley Cook for Troupe theatre company.

I first came across Troupe in 2013 when their first production, a spirited and sensitive revival of R C Sherriff’s THE WHITE CARNATION played with great success at the Finborough Theatre, later transferring to Jermyn Street Theatre. Ashley contacted me then to discuss investment, and we have continued our conversation – on and off – ever since. Troupe’s work mixes well-chosen revivals -such as the centenary year revival of DEAR BRUTUS by J M Barrie, a full-blooded award-winning revival of THE CARDINAL by James Shirley, Rodney Ackland’s AFTER OCTOBER and Robert Bolt’s FLOWERING CHERRY – with brave new writing like the award-nominated, coruscating RASHEEDA SPEAKING with the great Tanya Moodie, and their current show, Joy Wilkinson’s THE SWEET SCIENCE OF BRUISING, back after a sell out season last Autumn. Multi award-nominated, Troupe’s work is always worth seeing; I have been lucky enough to have seen all of their shows except one.

Ashley Cook (pictured below) is the resourceful and engaging founder/producer of Troupe, and I wanted to talk to him about the return of SWEET SCIENCE…. and how it all started.

Ashley Cook. Photo: Mitzi de Margary

Ashley, thanks for chatting with me. How did you first come to set up Troupe?

I started producing as a way of occupying my time during the day when I was in a long running show in the West End as an actor. The first thing I produced got a good response and I enjoyed the process so I decided to formalise things, formed a company (Troupe) and started putting on shows at the Finborough Theatre in Earls Court.

Photo: Mitzi de Margary

How did SWEET SCIENCE first come to your attention?

I put out a big call to literary agents in 2014, looking for new plays to produce and Joy’s agent sent me her play. It took four years, a bit of reworking of the script, and for me to get to the right place financially to produce it. Finally it opened at Southwark Playhouse in 2018, which ended up being the perfect time for it, coming as it did in a year that saw so much brilliant female-led theatre.

Photo: Mitzi de Margary

“The play…and Wilton’s…the perfect match”

What was it that caught your eye and spurred you to produce it?

I just loved Joy’s idea – Victorian female boxers fighting for their freedom – her beautiful story gripped me from the first page. I just knew audiences would want to see it. 

The Southwark Playhouse season of SWEET SCIENCE last year was very successful, selling out a month’s run in the 100-seat studio, and garnering you a useful crop of five- and four- star reviews. Troupe has transferred shows before, but moving to a 350-seater outside of the traditional theatre quarter was quite a leap. What were your key considerations in making that move?

Budget. Budget. Budget. I knew that in a larger space Joy’s epic play could really breathe and spread its wings and had the potential to really make an impact on audiences in an original Victorian music hall, but obviously it all came down to finance. So I had to do a lot of budgeting, juggling figures and working out how much funding and investment was possible. For the first time, Troupe also began working with a marketing agency (the fantastic EMG) as I knew I couldn’t rely on my own knowledge and experience of theatre marketing for the next stage of the play’s life. We had to bring in the professionals! But I had an instinct that people would want to see the show at Wilton’s and that our good reviews from the Southwark Playhouse production and the word-of-mouth that was following the show would carry us through. It’s an ‘event’ show and Wilton’s is a ‘destination’ theatre so I sensed it was the right move to make.

” it’s been lovely hearing how vocal and passionate audiences get about the play….”

Photo: Mitzi de Margary

How did Wilton’s emerge as a potential venue for the second season?

I had been in touch with Holly Kendrick, Executive Director of Wilton’s, about the potential of transferring a previous show there. I just didn’t think that project would quite work out financially, but I had always wanted to produce something there when the right thing came along. When it was clear The Sweet Science of Bruising was attracting good houses at Southwark Playhouse I invited Holly to see the show and we both agreed that Wilton’s was the perfect place to give it another life. The play is set partly in a Victorian amphitheatre and Wilton’s was built ten years before it begins. Holly had never programmed a boxing show there before, let alone a Victorian lady boxing show, so it ticked a lot of boxes for both of us and it just seemed like the perfect match.

How did you feel once the venue had been secured?

Excited, but then scared. We had to start filling all those seats!

Photo: Mitzi de Margary

It’s always good to see you on stage. Does taking a role in the production help to keep you anchored in the show (as well as keeping the costs down)?

It definitely helps me keep costs down with such large casts! And, yes, I suppose it does help me to be really connected to the work on all levels, but I only ever cast myself in the show if the part is absolutely right and the director is fully on board. I’m also very good at switching hats!

“I just knew audiences would want to see it…”

Wilton’s brings a special set of demands when staging a play. How did you go about making it work?

The most important thing was finding actors whose voices could work in that very specific acoustic. It isn’t just about volume. It’s about diction and clarity too. We wanted to make sure we fully embraced the whole building itself as our set, and forced ourselves to be brave enough to abandon the intimacy of the previous studio production and go big at Wilton’s. We also really wanted to involve the audiences this time and give them free reign to clap and cheer at our lady boxing matches. The audience are very much a third character as we break the fourth wall several times in the show. It was much easier to do this at Wilton’s as the space is designed for it, and it’s been lovely hearing how vocal and passionate audiences get about the play when we invite them in. It’s great to hear them clap, cheer, boo, hiss and laugh in equal measure as the production needs it to take off.

Photo: Mitzi de Margary

Has the play changed much from last year, apart from in terms of staging?

We’ve tweaked the script a little, but not much has changed. The main changes are that the fights and movement sequences are bigger and bolder for our larger venue.

Troupe has certainly lived up to its aspirations to showcase worthwhile rediscoveries alongside challenging new writing. Can you tell us what’s next for Troupe? 

You’ll have to watch this space!

Highly-recommended THE SWEET SCIENCE OF BRUISING continues at the beautiful time-capsule of Wilton’s Music Hall until 29 June. Information and tickets here

Read my four-star review of SWEET SCIENCE OF BRUISING here

To follow the work of Troupe, take a look at their website here


After dark play finborough theatre review
AFTER DARK at the Finborough Theatre until July 6th. Information and tickets here

IN BRIEF Creative staging of this bustling Victorian melodrama helps it rattle along, making a jolly romp of its labyrinthine plot.

With more plot lines than the current Tube map has colours, it’s a wonder that bustling 1868 melodrama AFTER DARK has stood up as well as it has, in large part thanks to Phil Wilmott’s inventive and jaunty production.

Writer Dion Boucicault (London Assurance, The Octoroon, The Shaughraun, etc) has adapted a French play which embraces much of London’s variety, stuffing the stage with incident, in scenes including an underground station, a music hall, the slums of Rotherhithe, to the icy Thames itself and much more. Well-spotted lighting and exciting moments of visual invention (which almost all come off very effectively) are highlights which partly compensate for the creaky, heavily-wordy script.

Opening with another opening, of the first London Underground Railway, in a clever sequence which prefaces the rest of the story, AFTER DARK steams into its plots of love frustrated, mixed-up marriages, fortunes and disgraced nobility; asides to the audience and descriptive speeches about events offstage abound in the time-honoured tradition.

A brief untangling of the plot? Eliza is the daughter of an ex-soldier who now lives on the streets and her mother is in the workhouse. Surviving as a maid, she has married George under an assumed name. George is the son of nobility, brought low by gambling and drink at the hands of gambling den and music hall owner Dicey Morris (“Queen of Crime”). George’s forged signature on his father’s cheque proves ideal blackmail fodder for Dicey and her partner in crime, crooked lawyer Chandos Bellingham. With George’s father just deceased, a title and a large inheritance is in sight, but stipulations in the will mean that there are many twists ahead for everyone (including villainy, heroics, near-suicides, druggings and deceptions) before the final curtain.

Woven into the play’s colourful fabric are ex-soldiers down on their luck (brief social comment here), incognito maids, music hall girls in a state of expectancy, the Salvation Army and various victims of gambling and drink (mostly at the various establishments of Dicey)

Lightening the conveyor belt of revelations and deceptions, some cleverly-conceived visuals are wisely spotted at the opening, act one close and finale. The first act curtain scene where Eliza throws herself into the Thames is created skilfully by the cast with a series of mirrors, picturing both above and below water, allowing for an heroic “nick of time” rescue.

The majority of the cast play this specialised, fragile material well. Standouts in the cast are the two villains; Victoria Jeffrey plays with relish as Dicey – living up to her name, peppering her gutter chat with amusing high-falutin’ malapropisms. She makes a great sparring partner for reptilian Chandos, played with equal lip-smacking fervour by Toby Wynn Davies. Jemima Watling underplays most successfully as the hard-done by Eliza, emphasising her heroism and selfless devotion for her lover who is promised to another, earning the audience’s affection. Praise, too, for the skilful musical trio in the cast who provide tuneful renditions of the music hall songs (some with a distinct edge) and other well-timed musical interjections.

Shunting this large cast (of 12) on and off the Finborough’s tiny stage is a real issue here, and I do feel that the mechanics of this small space have impacted on the pace of the show; it feels like it needs more of a head of steam to keep it chugging along. Having said that, the simple but hugely effective set of two brick arches on trucks are moved into every conceivable position and work very well, a clever design by Hannah Postlethwaite, especially effective when two characters weave through the alleyways of Rotherhithe, the arches move and twist to create unending tight, dark, populated corridors. Lighting, too, is often creative and well-used, vital in this small space, and the smattering of dry ice to conjure up foggy Old London Town works well, though it’s rather missed in the second act when the action moves to Hammersmith, the pace sags a little, and the darkness recedes for a while.

And so to the finale, “a climax of villainy”, and a rescue from death on the Underground rails which cues a veritable queue of revelations, unmaskings and comeuppances bringing the requisite happy endings to all (including the villains) and topped off by a rousing rendition of Rule Britannia, led by Britannia herself. Huzzah! So it’s three cheers for this enjoyably tongue-in-cheek AFTER DARK! And three stars.

AFTER DARK plays at The Finborough Theatre until July 6th. Information and Tickets here