Writer: Joy Wilkinson
Director: Kirsty Patrick Ward
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
The stories of four women dance around each other, clinching at times, bringing out an aggression and force that breathes life into feminist and historical themes.
As the 9th Marquess of Queensbury was considering the rules he would later give his name to boxing was less a gentleman’s art, more a fairground attraction. In this show, in around 1860 “The Professor” Charlie Sharp runs a boxing show in Islington, built with his philosophy that boxing should be much more than brawling – it’s the eponymous Sweet Science. Around this venue the four stories circle – a rich woman with a cruel husband, a nurse whose ambitions to be a doctor are repeatedly frustrated, an Irish immigrant who turns to the streets for an income, a talented fighter from the north who can’t get her title shot because of her gender.
Each beautifully different, but sharing common motivations and passions – each have been thwarted (in various ways) because of men, each talented, each smart and each driven to succeed in the contest to become the first Lady Boxing Champion of the World. Against a backdrop of emergent feminism, the suffragette movement, poverty, class issues and a feeling of realism vs romanticism, these four women support and battle each other.
The power comes in the contrasts Joy Wilkinson has managed to write into the production – vigour and life whilst inside constricting corsets, love tainted with violence, strong women dependent on weaker men. The performances from the four leads as well as their supporting male colleagues are as punchy as their on-stage bouts. Each could carry a play through with their own stories, together they’re a real education in communicating power.
Lit by Peter Harrison on a split-level stage designed by Anna Reid, the production matches physical excitement through the fights (directed by Kate Waters) and real thoughtfulness and verve through the light it shines on women’s lives in the mid 1800’s. Testament to Wilkinson’s skill at balancing competing ideas is the fact that a huge event (one of the characters being subjected to the unspeakable violence of a genital mutilation) is impactful without being sensationalised or overpowering.
It’s smart, quick and exciting – history and social studies rolled into one package and produced with charisma. Wilkinson explains in the programme notes that the vision was always to bring the Sweet Science to Wilton’s – and the transfer from a successful run of the show at the Southwark Playhouse to fulfill that ambition deserves serious reward.
Runs until 29 June 2019 | Image: Mitzi de Margary