Writer: Joy Wilkinson
Director: Kirsty Patrick Ward
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
It could come as a surprise to many that, 143 years before Nicola Adams picked up her first Olympic Gold Medal, women’s boxing was already underway. Writer Joy Wilkinson delves into this little-known activity for her new play and uses it as the foundation for a startling, visceral account of early feminist struggles.
In 1869, former boxer “Professor” Charlie Sharp (Bruce Alexander) is promoting women’s boxing bouts at his Angel Islington amphitheatre, masking them as scientific experiments. He invents the title “Champion of the World” and offers four possible contenders. Polly Stokes (Fiona Skinner) is a rough tomboy from the North, supposedly over-shadowed by her step-brother, aspiring boxer Paul (James Baxter). Matilda Blackwell (Jessica Regan) is a single Irish woman, paid a pittance as a typesetter at The Times and forced to work on the streets in order to survive.
Anna Lamb (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) is a dutiful middle-class wife and mother whose callous husband Gabriel (Joe Coen) becomes one of Matilda’s clients. Violet Hunter (Sophie Bleasdale) is financially dependent on her Aunt George (Caroline Harker), a meek supporter of the burgeoning movement for women’s suffrage. A nurse whose ambitions to become a doctor are thwarted, Violet seeks a more aggressive outlet for her frustration. Fate brings the four contenders together and into the boxing ring.
Structured in short scenes, the play feels fragmented in its early stages, but vivid writing and acting ensure that strong characters emerge quickly and take a firm hold. Wilkinson allows her work to be propelled more by its feminist sentiments than by plotting, but she weaves the four-story strands, each representing a different area of female grievance, together skilfully. Combatants in the ring become comrades in life, rising against oppression in the home, on the streets and in the workplace. The writing is indeed bruising and striking images of raw violence, which contradict the familiar gentility of Victorian ladies, magnify its impact.
Director Kirsty Patrick Ward’s production captures the urgency and anger in the writing, drawing scenes together with melodramatic music. Fight scenes, directed by Alison de Burgh, give a visual dimension to the drama, highlighting the bloodiness of the women’s battles in and out of the ring. The studio space here is near-perfect for this play and designer Anna Reid does not need to do much to replicate the atmosphere of a boxing arena. However, her period costumes bring colour to the production and help to emphasise the contrasts in the stories.
Wilkinson’s men amount to very little. Charlie is a has-been, Gabriel is a dastardly villain and Paul lacks the stamina to keep up with hyperactive Polly. It is her women who dominate, delivering blow after blow and eventually achieving a knockout.
Runs until 27 October 2018 | Image: Contributed