Review: THE SWEET SCIENCE OF BRUISING

IN BRIEF Troupe’s visceral Victorian celebration of fledgling feminism finding its fists, staged in the perfect venue.

Returning after last year’s triumphant sell-out season at Southwark Playhouse, Troupe’s pulsating production of Joy Wilkinson’s meaty slab of a play has found the perfect home in Wilton’s Music Hall – built in the mid-nineteenth century, which is when the play is set. A perfect time capsule, entering its doors into the magical auditorium is the nearest we could experience to stepping back into the time that they play is set, and is worth the price of admission alone.

The play focuses on four pioneering women trying to improve their lives through being the first ladies in the UK to box in public. All four have aspirations for a better life, and although initially drawn by the money, they come to see boxing as a kind of liberation – as Violet says, “I want to show them what women can do”.

Violet is a nurse/assistant brought in to the fight venue to attended to the wounded – she fights to scrape money together to train as one of the first female doctors. Matilda is a low-paid mother who has to provide for her family- she fights as an alternative to selling sex. Polly is an orphan fighting to stay alive- she is a natural scrapper; and Anna is a middle-class mother with a violent and unfaithful husband who fights to learn to defend herself.

They all encounter the Professor- a gamey fight promoter who teaches them “the art of the show”, choreographing their matches and making money from their work; just another kind of pimp.

With fighting comes a new kind of strength, which uncontrolled has the potential to become a lethal weapon. “It’s time to let the fear out” says Anna. All are searching for a freedom to live their lives as they want, unfettered by men.

The play is set in a time of change, as the first shoots of female liberation push unyielding through the hard ground of male domination. “Got to keep the little ladies in check” as the Professor remarks, justifying the shocking depths to which men would go to subjugate women and the self-serving beliefs of the day- which are starkly illuminated in the play as the barbaric acts they are. These scenes produce a genuine horror and revulsion in the audience. Make no mistake, this is strong stuff and Wilkinson does not flinch from showing us the grisly toolkit of male domination- from mental to physical violence, from condescension to actual mutilation (in the guise of science).

Joy Wilkinson’s clear, canny and humane script works admirably on all fronts, with the discussion about whether women should be working alone or together to achieve their aims brought brilliantly into focus at the climax of the play.

The production is hugely successful in creating the genuine excitement of the fight, expertly choreographed and played by the actors. Max Perryment’s rich sound design amplifies the moments when the fists hit their mark, causing a genuine reaction through the audience. Likewise, the music gravitates from melodic to jagged and mechanistic as the play proceeds, underlined with the sound of the baying fight crowds at every fight which whips up a real atmosphere (for me, it could have even been even a little louder).

The set is creative- simple and effective, complimented by just a hint of dry ice to conjure up smoky Victorian London, and the side lighting (in a heavy lighting rig for this difficult space) works very effectively to create depth and mood.

The women of the cast are just terrific – particularly Fiona Skinner and Jessica Regan reprising their performances from last year as Polly and Matilda respectively, absolutely inhabiting their characters with assurance to make the most of them. Celeste Dodwell makes a determined Violet glow with life, and Emma McDonald rightly buttoned-up as Anna. Kirsty Patrick Ward directs with an unflinching eye, with care for the characters, and special mention for the Fight Director Kate Waters (from original movement sequences by Alison de Burgh) who makes the fights look right.

Of the rest of the cast, Ashley Cook (Troupe’s founder) is enjoyably multifaceted as Dr Bell, and Jane How plays Violet’s Aunt with precision.

The male roles are all (rightly) secondary to the four fighters. My only reservation was that Owen Brenman as the Professor seemed underpowered and underplayed at the performance I attended. Sadly, his portrayal lacked any kind of “edge” which would allow him to be both the fairground barker and the wily manipulator, with the mystery of an outsider. However, as I said, it’s the women’s show.

The nature of the entertainment that this venue was built for- music hall songs set against a backdrop, meant that no wings or stage depth were needed, which makes it problematic for plays which set up here. However, Troupe use the existing stage, but have also built out in front a lower platform to play upon, thus giving themselves a two-tier playing area which wisely brings the show closer to the audience. The front platform is used more often, and for all of the boxing matches which occur through the play.

The cast project well in this high space which gives an echoey acoustic. Such a different space from last year’s small, cramped and intimate Little 90-seat studio at the Southwark Playhouse where the actors practically acted in the audience’s lap. It is good to see that the company have taken full advantage of Wilton’s stage space to open the playing areas out.

Razors, fists, violence, murder, sex, freedom. This is life in the raw at a pivotal time in Britain. Joy Wilkinson has brilliantly shone a celebratory spotlight upon four strong and inspiring women fighting for their lives. The audience rightly ate it up and shouted for more. This is one you must not miss.

THE SWEET SCIENCE OF BRUISING is at Wilton’s Music Hall until June 29th. Information and tickets here