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Theatre Review Bruising lessons to be learnt from engrossing drama on women boxers

The Sweet Science of Bruising
Southwark Playhouse, London

 

AS A woman in Victorian England how do you pay your way through medical school? How do you defend yourself against your abusive husband? What do you do when a john has bruised your face and you can’t turn a trick?

 

You box, is the rather brilliant answer that Joy Wilkinson’s play The Sweet Science of Bruising gives.

 

What starts as a search for a way out ends as a serious endeavour for its female protagonists and what’s initially a novelty warm-up act for boxing promoter Professor Sharp (Bruce Alexander) turns into the main event.

 

The action is loosely set in the context of the suffrage movement — all the female boxers struggle in what’s a patriarchal world. Violet Hunter (Sophie Bleasdale), Matilda “Matty” Blackwell (Jessica Regan), Anna Lamb (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and Polly Stokes (Fiona Skinner) are all looking to “make them think about what women can do,” as Violet puts it.

 

Anna’s abusive husband, Matty’s tricks, Polly’s adopted brother/lover and Violet’s fiance all contain the women’s ambitions and desires, often violently.

 

The narrative of empowerment and the bouncing, energetic performances allure but it is also a play in which a great deal happens. Wilkinson has created many engaging central characters and her script raises plenty of interesting political questions. But within the two-hour running time there’s not a lot of space to explore those relationships, politics or backstories.

 

The short scenes move quickly in order to cover ground but while the performances and the direction add texture the pace, frustratingly, leaves questions unanswered and at times the tone veers dangerously close to the melodramatic.

 

Occasionally, this feels like a nascent TV series and so it’s a welcome shift when Jessica Regan’s Matilda introduces some more theatrical elements to the proceedings in a characterisation of some complexity, while Kemi-Bo Jacobs is a nuanced and tortured Anna.

 

This is a fascinating and politically driven play but it just doesn’t quite land the knockout blow.

 

Runs until October 27, box office southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

 

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