Having had it world premiere at Southwark Playhouse late last year, Joy Wilkinson’s The Sweet Science of Bruising transfers for round two to Wilton’s Music Hall, directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward.
Set in Victorian London, it explores a world that modern society knows very little about, an underground band of female boxers. In the days where women had no rights of their own, and were considered the property of their husbands, these women would gather in theatres to fight it out for the chance of glory, and to be something more than chattel.
With little historical evidence to go on, Joy Wilkinson has had the freedom to develop her story and characters giving a rich hook to the narrative. The Sweet Science of Bruising is pleasingly unusual for its use of four protagonists, each of equal standing. As we follow these four women through their introduction to boxing, their paths may intersect, but their stories are their own.
Under the guidance and management of Professor Charlie Sharp (Owen Brenman), Violet, Matilda, Anna and Polly learn the craft of boxing and compete to be the Ladies World Champion, battling it out in the mean establishments of Islington. For one woman in particular, it is her brutish and cruel husband, played with menacing chill by Wilf Scolding, which encourages her to take up the male dominated sport.
Each of the four women come from different backgrounds, allowing us to see how the journey differs for a Lady and a prostitute, a nurse and an orphan. What’s notable is the way these characters develop, it becomes clear that they each have a fight on their hands, and not necessarily just in the ring.
It’s inherently violent, and the sharply choreographed fight scenes from fight director Kate Waters pack enough of a punch to appear realistic. But there are also plenty of scenes where boxing isn’t the focus, instead these characters flourish in their own respective stories.
Our four lady boxers; Celeste Dodwell, Jessica Regan, Emma McDonald and Fiona Skinner all bring their characters to life with a subtle brutality. Skinner’s Polly is wonderfully roguish and endearing, while McDonald’s Anna garners the empathy of the audience.
The Sweet Science of Bruising brings to life an unknown world, and while the focus is on boxing there is bigger message about the castigation of women in this era. Wilkinson’s knockout writing explores a multitude of themes while retaining a sense of gripping theatre, and highlights that every one of our protagonists were champions in their own way.