FringeReview UK 2018
Thus premiere in Southwark’s The Little is directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward. Anna Reid’s design marks out the floor as a ring, and by contrast produces glittering props. Alison de Burgh’s fight directing is thrilling. Tim Deling’s lighting emphasizes it, and most striking is Max Perrymount’s sound and composition.
Troupe and Southwark Playhouse. A combination almost guaranteeing outstanding theatre. So it proves here.
Joy Wilkinson’s a little spooked by serendipity. Though she wrote the initial version of The Sweet Science of Bruising in 2007, featuring an aspiring woman doctor, she’s currently a scriptwriter for the new series of Jody Whittaker’s Dr Who. Like that character, Wilkinson straddles every medium: from award-winning theatre, TV and film to radio.
On the evidence of this play, theatre would like her back. Conceived as a ten-strong ensemble it was always going to prove difficult to mount, the one element that didn’t punch above its weight. But Ashley Cook’s Troupe proves as ever sovereign in plays of this scale, and following Shirley’s The Cardinal, and Barrie’s Dear Brutus, they present this new play about 1869, again in Southwark’s The Little, here directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward.
Wilkinson’s theme – four women realising themselves through boxing – has come of age with Nicola Adams. Though dramatized through fragmentary documents, it’s based on fact: Polly Stokes, like Wilkinson from Lancashire, really was Lady Boxer Champion. And who’d have thought there was a wonderful coup in abiding by The Queensberry Rules – recently formulated in 1865-67: don’t punch below the waist.
Times typesetter, part-time street-walker and finally full-time Irish fighter Mattie Blackwell asks the villain if he’s Queensberry but introduces him to a place with those ringside rules. The Svengali of these women boxers Professor Charlie Sharp, is gay. Leading youth astray. Wilkinson’s full of sly Wildean subtext.
And playing with faddish theory. Sharp invokes crude Darwinian principles, Blackwell from her black-fingered Times education taunts with it and Cartesian dualism, and an aspiring doctor does too.
For spit’n sawdust intimacy, the Southwark’s Little is hard to beat. With the audience in U-shaped proximity boxers almost crash into you in the front row – Alison de Burgh’s fight-directing is thrilling. Anna Reid’s design marks out the floor as a ring, by contrast producing glittering props, a beautiful silver tea service on elegant round tables and assorted chairs. There’s a surgery assemblage too: that darkens. Each time elegance intrudes, shades of the prison bars strike down into the heart. The bare ring’s the freest place.
Tim Deling’s lighting emphasizes it, and most striking is Max Perrymount’s sound and composition. Memorable themes rise above horse cloppings and Irish reels counterpoint Blackwell’s character. One of the most memorable I’ve heard in a long time.
When Fiona Skinner’s Polly Stokes rocks up to Bruce Alexander’s Professor of Boxing with her brother Paul (James Baxter), she’s pugilistic, he the pro pugilist. Siblings in name only – she was adopted on the doorstep – they’re clearly very close but Polly’s happy to spar. With anyone. Alexander’s puckish, exploititively ruthless but almost benign Sharp acts as a lodestar to whom four women gravitate from different backgrounds.
The Stokes’ trajectory’s the most interesting. James Baxter makes an excellent fist as it were of a fighter not quite up to his elective sibling, but Skinner’s Polly cajoles him; when he loses she steps up. Skinner’s excellent at conveying how Polly’s priorities shift back and forth. Yet for a while she loses all interest when she’s got her man, developing other appetites to deliver a different kind of knockout. There’s a painful confrontation, wounded masculinity lashing out, a return to the ring.
Sophie Bleasdale’s Violet Hunter is a privileged theatre-goer. A delicious pastiche melodrama’s played out by three cast members in front of her, suffragist Aunt George (regal Caroline Harker) and aspiring sentimental novelist Emily (fluttery Alice Kerrigan who also plays Nancy the put-upon maid elsewhere). There’s a sudden division of campaigning priorities: Wilkinson’s cheerfully prepared to show up the frivolous even in sacred things like suffrage. Emily’s for melodramatic fiction-writing only, George for polite suffrage, who financially supports intellectual Violet, determines to be the first woman doctor, after Dr Garrett of course. She needs money to study in Paris. She neglects collecting signatures.
There’s Ashley Cooke’s Dr James Bell whom she assists at a surgery. He’d marry Violet, teach her to be a doctor in all but name. That’s not enough.
Bleasdale exudes the isolation of a rationalist whom male rationalists irrationally dismiss because of gender, deploying crackpot ‘facts’: women’s brains are swiftly exhausted.
Wilkinson’s good at plausible flawed males and their hypocrisy: muddled decent Paul Stokes, progressive Bell, espousing barbarism. Violet too finds her way to the ring having patched up Paul. Told by Sharp she has perfect reflexes for a boxer she rejects something completely at odds with her calling. And yet….
Sharp’s ‘it’s all about me’ and finally Aunt George’s assertion of crude Darwinist desperation, bark against the solidarity Wilkinson contrasts it with; across these the play’s shuttled. It’s literally in a competitive environment characters discover how uncompetitive they might be.
Unredeemed villain Gabriel Lamb (Joe Coen) first tangles with Jessica Regan’s tricksy, seductive Mattie Blackwell who also flaunts her way to the ring, having haunted its environs so long. She taunts Gabriel to women’s boxing and sex, telling how she managed to get an advert for clitorectamy pulled from The Times. That’s an alarming detail.
Hypocrite Gabriel’s married though to Kemi-Bo Jacobs’ Anna, whom he’s gas-lighting, tightening her whalebone so she can’t breathe, amongst the silver and china. Coen’s every inch the plausible sadist, both expressing discontent to Blackwell, then controlling at home. Jacobs’ role is corseted as trophy wife and mother, Kerrigan’s Nancy her only ally. Following her husband who haunts Blackwell, she too finds a kind of liberation. But there’s danger. Not for nothing Coen smashes a plate, requiring stitches delivered by Dr Bell’s aspiring assistant when he’s too far under ether to resist. She’s after all a ‘far better seamstress’ Bell assures Gabriel. But Anna shadows her husband to the ring: she’s right-hooked too.
This limbering-up‘s compelling and yes there’s melodrama but consequent on things Victorians inflicted, never uttered. Nothing though prepares us for the way Wilkinson KO’s her set pieces. Some are terrible; the heralded fight between all four is interrupted by bouts of other, harrowing violence, another heartily deserved, but there’s penalties. And in the final corset-loosing round there’s a literally heart-stopping moment and Bleasdale’s character finds herself as both pugilist and doctor.
Whilst Anna’s and Blackwell’s characters aren’t as developed as their sparring partners, Wilkinson challenges and persuades in all four journeys. The paradox of solidarity when you’re trying to knock each other out becomes an agreed choreography, not match-fixing seen earlier, but a desperate strategy to save two lives. The disturbing element isn’t so much women’s ferocious pugilism and desire to assert an energy denied, though it’s that too: it’s the male gaze. The same male gaze that objectified women, skewering them like Victorian butterflies. No wonder women wanted to break out – then and now.
Bleasdale, Skinner, Regan, Jacobs, Alexander, Coen and Baxter are superb; and the rest of the cast are excellent. . Direction’s fluid, following Wilkinson’s direction-laden text. Ward and de Burgh succeed in punching through a two-and-a-half hour drama without any drop of energy. Troupe prove this in revivals, and it’s incredibly helpful they champion new writing as good as this. It should go to a prize-fight.