Wilton’s Music Hall – until 29 June 2019
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Joy Wilkinson’s bold and brilliant play about Victorian female boxers feels right at home in the atmospheric Wilton’s Music Hall. It’s 1869, and Owen Brenman’s exploitative but paternal Professor Charlie Sharp, scouting for new boxing talent to fight at his Angel Amphitheatre in Islington, sees orphan Polly Stokes sparring with her adopted brother, Paul. Sensing an innovative way to draw in the curious crowds, Sharp promises Stokes a title fight if he first boxes an exhibition match against Polly. The match doesn’t go quite to plan but is watched by three women who become inspired to fight themselves. The stories of the three women overlap at times, but Wilkinson has created four characters that each embody the plight of women in the 19th century, whatever their social standing.
Upper class Anna Lamb (Emma McDonald – haunting and heart-breaking) is stuck in an abusive marriage and dreams of freedom for herself and her children, nurse Violet (Celeste Dodwell – delightfully sharp) wants to train as a doctor and fight for female suffrage and empowerment, typesetter and prostitute Matty (Jessica Regan – full of warmth and melancholic wit) and Polly (Fiona Skinner – fiery but always vulnerable) who’s been fighting for love and survival all her life, all become contenders for the title of Lady Boxing Champion.
The brutally dynamic fight scenes are choreographed brilliantly, and the Rocky-esque training montage (accompanied by driving Irish music) involving all four women is charming and uplifting.
There is lots of fun to be had from a modern viewpoint as the women react to the men around them, but Wilkinson never avoids the harsh reality of a woman being viewed as the property of her husband, and the medical establishment’s view that any “hysteria” could be cured by mutilating women’s genitals. There are some truly shocking and devastating moments, mostly involving Anna and her husband, but the underlying misogyny of the age is always present, mocked despairingly by Matty as her intelligence and lost potential are revealed in her boozy monologues. The men are all flawed or downright evil (Wilf Scolding as Gabe Lamb is completely slappable), and it seems that only Sharp cares about the women, even though they are his meal ticket.
Thrilling and ferociously inspiring, The Sweet Science of Bruising is a real contender – grab a ticket while you can.