The Sweet Science of Bruising is Joy Wilkinson’s fascinating foray into the inception of ‘lady boxing’, in the mid-1800s. This fictional account follows four equally compelling narratives, women who often begin boxing out of necessity, using it to exert a form of freedom, yet are driven to continue the sport due to the sheer euphoria they feel within the ring. It’s bloody, brutal, and often brawling – yet at the same time is raised from its image as a stereotypically ‘low’ pursuit to become an elegant art form. Indeed, there is something almost transcendental about the scientific-yet-spiritual interplay when the bell chimes to mark the start of each match.
The sparring and hooking, ducking and diving (superbly choreographed by Alison de Burgh) begin to take on the guise of an intricate dance, whilst Joy Wilkinson’s bold decision to step away from the monolithic approach of following one protagonist alone is both brave and effective, begging the question, ‘whose story is this, and who are we rooting for?’
First, there is the northern Polly Stokes, played by a thickly-accented Fiona Skinner, who simply loves to box. Born in a time where women must make a choice – a wedding ring or the boxing ring – Polly represents the need for a woman’s right to pursue her own interests without permission from her husband. Violet Hunter (played by the excellent Sophie Bleasdale) boxes to fund her pursuit of medicine – she longs to train as a doctor in Paris, despite her Aunt’s threats to cut off her allowance, and is passionate about women’s rights.
Anna Lamb, a long-suffering upper-middle-class housewife, fights to escape her abusive husband, yet also comes to find this path blocked, leading to one of the most difficult decisions any woman may ever make. Kemi-Bo Jacobs gives a lovely turn in this role, balancing ostensible stoicism with a simmering undercurrent of anger and resentment. Finally, there is Irish Matilda ‘Matty’ Blackwell, a streetwise lady of the night, played by a nicely bolshie Jessica Regan; Matty uses the spectacle of boxing to help her out of her current, rather unsatisfactory, money-making schemes.
It is difficult to know who to ‘back’ in the ring, given the multiple narratives, but this refreshing experience helped to place each of our heroines’ trials and tribulations on a par. Directed with aplomb by Kirsty Patrick Ward, with punchy music as a soundscape to the (many) scene changes, the play gallops along to its climatic finish. Whilst the ending feels somewhat abrupt (we can only guess at what happens to these women in the aftermath), it is the energy of this collaborative ensemble that helps keep the action moving. This timely piece, echoing the very prevalent ‘this girl can’ attitude permeating the present cultural backdrop, The Sweet Science of Bruising is Joy Wilkinson’s ode to women everywhere. In highlighting the vulnerabilities of women in the 19th century, this production reminds us just how far we’ve come – and how much further we really have to go – in allowing the strength of women to truly shine through.
Review by Amy Stow
Based on historical research into 19th-century women’s boxing, The Sweet Science of Bruising is a fascinating new play by Joy Wilkinson (Verity Bargate Award winner). Featuring an ensemble cast and thrilling up-close boxing matches, this is an epic tale of passion, politics and pugilism.
Cast: Bruce Alexander (Professor Charlie Sharp), James Baxter (Paul Stokes), Sophie Bleasdale (Violet Hunter), Joe Coen (Gabriel Lamb), Ashley Cook (Doctor James Bell), Caroline Harker (Aunt George), Kemi-Bo Jacobs (Anna Lamb), Alice Kerrigan (Emily), Jessica Regan (Matilda ‘Matty’ Blackwell) and Fiona Skinner (Polly Stokes).
The World Première of
THE SWEET SCIENCE OF BRUISING
By Joy Wilkinson
Directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward; Fight and Movement Direction by Alison de Burgh
Designed by Anna Reid; Lighting Design by Tim Deiling; Sound Design and Original Composition by Max Perryment
At Southwark Playhouse
3 – 27 October 2018
77 Newington Causeway, London, SE1 6BD