It is said that female prison wings can be just as violent as male ones, and in some cases more so – so why shouldn’t there be female boxers? But Professor Charlie Sharp (Owen Brenman) wishes to treat the sport as an art form, a choreographed event but with scope to go with the flow if there’s a ‘wrong’ move somewhere. There’s a bit more to it than merely thumping one’s opponent as hard as possible, though Sharp’s aim is, ultimately, to maximise profit for himself and his boxers (just like any other profit-making enterprise out there), and conversely, when things aren’t going well, he is forced to contemplate shutting up shop altogether.
Set rather specifically in Angel, Islington, in 1869, several boxers – most of them women – take part in various matches set up by Sharp. They come from different backgrounds, and each of the main four competitors, Violet Hunter (Celeste Dodwell), Matty Blackwell (Jessica Regan), Anna Lamb (Emma McDonald) and Polly Stokes (Fiona Skinner) has their own story to tell, dramatized rather than narrated in each case. The matches, which never seem to go beyond a couple of rounds (or perhaps it is assumed they go on for longer, but the audience is supplied with abridged versions in order to get home at a reasonable time) are thoroughly convincing.
Put it another way: it would not surprise me if the occasional bruise was actually sustained by members of the cast during this run. Thanks to Hunter’s ambitions, there’s some exploration of the struggles that women aspiring to enter the medical profession had to go through: the first woman to qualify in Britain as a surgeon, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917) is referenced in the show. A rather different sort of sparring comes in the form of an increasingly fractious working relationship with Dr James Bell (Ashley Cook), with whom Hunter stands her ground, with perhaps inevitable consequences.
Lamb probably gets the worst treatment, however, in an era when it was never going to be possible to persuade a court that a woman striking out against her husband Gabriel (Wilf Scolding) was acting in self-defence. Through the lenses of a twenty-first century audience, the treatment of women is downright appalling. Professor Sharp is unusual for being unfailingly civilised in his dealings with the ladies who fight in his boxing ring. What precisely the rules were is difficult to ascertain, though Sharp appears to insist on boxing largely as it is done today, rather than the kicking and even gouging one reads about in (certain) history books.
The play is very well-written, covering many different themes but without leaving the production feeling cluttered or confusing. There is some contemporary relevance to the play’s dialogue – when yet another petition is called for, for instance, it brought to my mind the many petitions on various online platforms for people to sign these days. It is extraordinary, really, how the stage is as believable as, say, a boxing ring as it is a front room, and without massive set changes to make this happen.
The story, although sometimes as predictable as night follows day, progresses at a comfortable but nonetheless energetic pace. It touches, amongst other things, on parenting, domestic violence and personal motivations – the character development is nothing short of excellent. As it happens, the most violent moment of all is in Dr Bell’s consulting room. Overall, it is not quite a knockout, though this spirited and passionate production borders on melodrama.
Review by Chris Omaweng
1869. Deep in the heart of Victorian London is a theatre where only the strongest survive. Controlled by men and constrained by corsets, four very different women are drawn into the dark underground world of female boxing; each finds an unexpected freedom in the ring. As their lives begin to intertwine their journey takes us from grand drawing rooms to rowdy backstreet pubs where the women fight inequality as well as each other. But with the final showdown approaching, only one can become the Lady Boxing Champion of the World…
Owen Brenman plays Professor Charlie Sharp.
Ashley Cook plays Doctor James Bell.
Celeste Dodwell plays Violet Hunter.
Jane How plays Aunt George.
Alice Kerrigan plays Emily.
Tom Lorcan plays Paul Stokes.
Emma McDonald plays Anna Lamb.
Jessica Regan plays Matilda ‘Matty’ Blackwell.
Wilf Scolding plays Gabriel Lamb.
Fiona Skinner plays Polly Stokes.
THE SWEET SCIENCE OF BRUISING
By Joy Wilkinson
Directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward
Fight Direction by Kate Waters
Designed by Anna Reid
Sound Design and Original Composition by Max Perryment
Lighting Design by Peter Harrison
Wilton’s Music Hall
5 – 29 June 2019
Press night: Friday 7 June, 7.30pm