Set in the 1860s, The Sweet Science of Bruising journeys into the little-known world of Victorian women’s boxing.
Joy Wilkinson’s play tells four interweaving stories. Violet (Sophie Bleasdale) is a nurse who harbours hopes of training as a doctor. Polly (Fiona Skinner) is a fighter, just as handy with her fists, if not more so, than Paul, her adoptive brother and sometime lover. Upper-middle-class Anna Lamb (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) is stifled by the rigidity of Victorian wifehood, and Irish prostitute Matty (Jessica Regan) is keen to escape the streets. All four women have had their desires and dreams dismissed and belittled by the men in their lives. All have reason to take to the ring, to do something physically invigorating and socially trangressive, to test themselves and take control of their own stories.
Wilkinson’s play is many-stranded and ambitious in scope. But it’s also over-burdened with plot – touching on everything from domestic abuse, archaic attitudes towards female sexuality, and the business of prize-fighting itself – as much an entertainment as a sport. This eats into the space for character development.
Bleasdale, as the capable, frustrated Violet, and Skinner, as the proud, street-hardened Polly, are particularly complex and interesting, but the other two characters have less room to grow.
The fight scenes are energetically choreographed by Alison de Burgh, though Kirsty Patrick Ward’s production is a bit scrappy. The melodramatic ending, perhaps fittingly feels like something torn from the pages of a novel by Victorian sensationalists Wilkie Collins or Mary Elizabeth Braddon, but the play’s focus on female strength is cathartic.