The Sweet Science of Bruising: Anna Lamb spars with Francesca McBride as Violet Hunter

Theatre Review: The Sweet Science of Bruising, The Mission Theatre, Bath

When the boxer Nicola Adams stepped into the ring to fight Ren Cancan for Olympic Gold in 2012 they did so as athletes. No make-up, blow-dried hair or sexy outfits – but simply as the best physical version of themselves in the ultimate female boxing competition. A contest not for the sexual gratification of men but as part of the Olympic Games to be cheered on by boxing enthusiasts around the world.

It has taken decades if not centuries for women in this country to gain equality in law, sports, voting rights, pay and employment – all pioneered from figures such as Mary Wolfstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women to the Suffragettes and the likes of Billy Jean King beating Bobby Riggs in the ‘battle of the sexes’, tennis match in 1973.

In Joy Wilkinson’s play The Sweet Science of Bruising at the Mission Theatre in Bath we are taken back to the turn of the 19th century in a Victorian England where women were beginning to assert their voices in society. And yet they were still largely controlled by men. Step forward showman Professor Charlie Sharp played with a fabulously theatricality by Bob Constantine who stages boxing matches and other entertainments for money. He stumbles upon Polly Stokes through her brother the boxer Paul Stokes and the idea of a female boxing contest is born. Tianna James as Polly is superb as the aspiring athlete as she spars, jabs and punches with total commitment. In contrast Callum Marshall as her brother convinces as the nearly man – who is overshadowed by his sibling – straight roles are always harder to pull off and he also achieves this again as he doubles as Captain Danby.

Bob Constantine enjoyed himself as the showman Professor Charlie Sharp

Another actor playing it straight is Alistair Davey who doubles up as several characters with the impossibly prejudiced and demanding Doctor Forster as being particularly memorable. And completing the unreconstructed Victorian gents is the husband of Anna Lamb played by Harry Mason whose eventual comeuppance was enthusiastically cheered on by the audience. That suggested he had successfully become a hate figure for his despicable behaviour towards Anna – much better than a standing ovation.

Two supporting female roles were Aunt George played by an on-form Sara Keane and the maid played by the appropriately subservient Antonia White. That leaves the quartet of female boxers who constrained by their corsets and controlled by men finish the drama in a rousing corset less finale. Tiana James as Polly was brilliant, Francesca McBride as Violet Hunter was exceptional – and has the added natural ingredient of a slight catch of emotion in her voice which helps convince with her speeches. Anna Lamb was played by Olivia Stiles who rather enjoyed repaying her husband’s bad behaviour with her fists and Matty was given another exceptional performance by the talented Ellie Turner. A cast of all the talents worthy of any professional stage.

A quartet of women boxers in Victorian England heralded the equality in the next century

Perhaps the most memorable aspect of Joy Wilkinson’s 2018 drama staged in a traverse setting at the Mission Theatre was Brian Hudd’s direction. He managed to combine the genteel discussions with the extreme physicality required to convince the audience of boxing’s innate violence. Hudd had a good team with fight choreographer Nicky Wilkins essential in making the boxing look and sound real. Chayenne Rogers-Dixon’s videography and imagery projected onto the back wall of the stage added much period detail and atmosphere while the set was minimal allowing for the action to be unrestrained. My only thought was that some form of carpet of covering on the boards would have helped to dampen the constant footsteps of the entrances and exits – although a minor point in a production that was a five star triumph for the Next Stage Theatre Company.

All women and girls should see this play or read the original novel as it highlights the inequalities of the past but also heralds the breakthroughs that were to come with Votes for Women and Barbara Castle’s 1970 Equal Pay Act to the day Nicola Adams could step into a boxing ring, not wearing a corset, but as an athlete ready to perform as a professional boxer.

Harry Mottram

The play runs to Saturday 2nd July, nightly at 7.30pm.

Details and tickets at

Harry Mottram is the news editor of Bath Voice monthly magazine covers news, views, reviews, previews and features as well as what’s on in Bath and events for residents in Bear Flat, Widcombe and Oldfield Park and the wider Bath area. Delivered door to door in south Bath and available in shops and supermarkets. See the Facebook site for details.

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