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


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