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. Ashely Cook plays Doctor James Bell, and caught up with us to tell us more.

The Sweet Science of Bruising is at Southwark Playhouse 3rd– 27th October 2018.

The Sweet Science of Bruising is coming to Southwark Playhouse, what can you tell us about it?

It’s a world premiere of a new play. Set in London in 1869, it focuses on four very different women who discover the dark underground world of female boxing. In a period dominated by men, they all find an unexpected freedom through boxing and compete to become the Lady Boxing Champion of the World. Think Victorian female Fight Club! It’s epic, with an ensemble cast of 10 in full period costume, and sweeps through multiple locations, encompassing wonderful characters and stories that are cleverly intertwined by our playwright Joy Wilkinson. There are also some pretty cool up-close lady boxing matches, and it’s all based on historical research; yes, there were actual Victorian female boxers!…

How would you describe your character?

I play Doctor James Bell, a Victorian surgeon who is in love with Violet, one of our lady boxers. The problem is she’s not too keen! He means well and thinks he’s progressive, but is actually rather stuck in the dark ages. He finds it difficult to take on new scientific theories like Darwinism, for example.

What’s your favourite thing about your character?

I like the fact that he’s an academic. He’s one of those characters that’s a bit awkward and, although he is bright and well-read, he doesn’t have a huge amount of emotional intelligence. That can be fun to play with on stage.

Did you have to do any research for the role?

I read up on medical procedures of the time and what it meant to be a private surgeon in that period. I also researched the Victorian wonder drug laudanum, which features in the play. Despite the huge leaps forward in science and medicine in the 1800s, it is still quite shocking to read how archaic, not to mention barbaric, some of the procedures seem to us today. I wouldn’t like to be ill in the Victorian age!

What do you like most about Joy Wilkinson’s writing?

I love how nimble the play is and how well Joy writes for actors. Everything you need to know is contained in what a character says and how they say it. She’s great at giving you all the clues you need to do your work. The text has no fat on it, meaning that it’s focused and everything she writes is necessary. It may be rich in detail and fantastically epic, but it never drags and goes at a real lick. I think it’s going to be quite some experience for an audience.

How have you and the rest of the cast been getting to know each other?

It has been a very intense rehearsal period. There are 26 scenes in the play and we’ve only got four weeks to get it on. We’ve been getting to know each other over cups of tea in the rehearsal room, but I suspect we’ll get to know each other better once we’ve opened…

What would you say to anyone thinking of coming to see The Sweet Science of Bruising?

It’s quite rare to find a new play that’s this epic and ambitious with such a large cast on the Off West End. I think it’s got something for everyone. For those that like a bit of a thrill and an ‘event’ show, they’ll love the boxing matches. For those that like history and period pieces, it’s fascinating and is going to be beautifully costumed by our designer Anna Reid. For those that are just loving all these wonderful new female-led plays (I’m hoping everyone!) this is another great addition to 2018. Why have one female lead when you can have four? It’s got a lot to say about where feminism has been, and what we still need to do to achieve true equality today, but, most importantly, it doesn’t bang you over the head with a political message. It invites you into a vivid, colourful world and takes you on a thrilling journey, showing you the inexcusable mistakes of the past, while remaining practical and optimistic about the future…

Greg is an award-winning writer with a huge passion for theatre. He has appeared on stage, as well as having directed several plays in his native Scotland. Greg is the founder and editor of Theatre Weekly


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