REVIEW: The Sweet Science Of Bruising, York Theatre Royal Studio ****

On the ropes: Kate Whittaker’s Polly Stokes feels the force of Zee Williams’s Matilda Blackwell on the attack in The Sweet Science Of Bruising

York College & University Centre BA (Hons) Acting for Stage and Screen Graduating Students in The Sweet Science Of Bruising, York Theatre Royal Studio, July 20 and 21

TWO years of intense training have gone into this climactic graduating production by York College & University Centre’s first cohort of Acting for Stage and Screen BA students.

They deliver a knockout punch with Joy Wilkinson’s torrid 2018 drama The Sweet Science Of Bruising, an epic tale of passion, politics and pugilism set in the underground world of 19th-century women’s boxing.

Mirroring the rounds of a boxing bout in its dramatic rhythm, each scene is short and sharp, some dominated by jabs, others by body blows, some completed with a count to ten. Every step of the way, director James Harvey duly has his cast floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee.

Philippa Hickson’s Violet Hunter, left, with Shell Murphy’s Aunt George

Already, the students had staged a spring showcase for agents at the Theatre Royal, one of two industry partners in the course alongside Screen Yorkshire. An auditorium buzzing with energy greets them – CharlesHutchPress was ringside for the Friday performance – and ever louder cheers meet each scene’s denouement in the compact Studio, where the actors are within punching range.

These exultations peak in response to the retaliatory barrage of punches unleashed by Molly Shackshaft’s Anna Lamb on her vile creep of a gaslighting husband, Andrew Joseph-Hilyer’s anything-but-angelic Gabriel Lamb.

Liam Wilks’s Victorian-moustachioed “Professor” Charlie Sharp doubles as silver-tongued master of ceremonies at Islington’s Angel Amphitheatre – egging on the audience’s responses from round one – and twinkle-eyed, if thin-skinned, subversive boxing promoter with his roster of fledgling female talent.

Jim Carnall’s title-chasing boxer Paul Stokes with Liam Wilks’s boxing promoter “Professor” Charlie Sharp

Each protagonist has a reason for turning to boxing: Shackshaft’s young mother and charity crusader Anna Lamb has been pushed too far by her cheating, controlling, belittling, physically abusive husband; Philippa Hickson’s trainee doctor Violet Hunter has found her path to progression in the medical profession blocked by Jordan Benson’s insufferable Dr James Bell.

Zee Williams’s resourceful, Descartes-quoting Irish lady of the night and typesetter for The Times newspaper, Matilda Blackwell, craves a puncher’s chance of a fresh opportunity to make money; Kate Whitttaker’s hardy north easterner Polly Stokes is steeped in boxing from the bouts of her “brother” Paul (Jim Carnall), with preternatural punching power of her own. Her performance matches it in its impact.

Wilkinson’s script is combative and comedic, fiery and feminist, startling and exhilarating, a hit to the head, a punch to the gut. This is gloves-off theatre, fuelled by Wilkinson being drawn to “powerful women whose bodies contrast with ‘feminine ideals’ and force us to rethink what we’re capable of”: women such as Fay Weldon’s She-Devil, Alien’s Ellen Ripley and Terminator’s Sarah Connor.

Zee Williams’s prostitute Matilda Blackwell and Andrew Joseph-Hilyer’s callous client Gabriel Lamb

Reactions in the audience are all the stronger for Wilkinson’s play being refracted through our age of #MeToo, high-profile boxing champs such as Nicola Adams and Katie Taylor, Roe v Wade and a rising repression of women’s rights, whether in Afghanistan or the United States.

What a superb choice of play by programme leader Harvey, his decision made in part in response to the preponderance of woman in the 2021 intake. His cast responds with a champion performance.

In boxing parlance, did this Bruising encounter leave you reviewer seeing stars (in the making), courtesy of Kaitlin Howard’s fight direction? It would be unfair to pick out any performer over another, given the high quality all round. Instead, let’s hope to see them again as they join the professional ranks.