Dramatising the unbelievable tales of infamous Georgian prostitutes who settled scores and earned a quick quid in bare-knuckle boxing matches, Punching Jane pits the comical against the brutal. Its Hogarth-esque scenes of gin-swilling, innuendo-pumping mayhem trade blows with a cutting examination of what it meant to be a woman, and to be a man, in down-and-out 18th-century London. The towel is thrown in a little early, but while it lasts, Ed Young and Jess Farley’s play is an edgy and kinetic creation which feels particularly at home on stage at the Courtyard, a dark inner-city catacomb.
For a play about carnage, Punching Jane is highly conscious of rules. Even the fights are carefully planned out by this ‘family’ of prostitutes, with its strict, ultra-Georgian idea of hierarchy. Mother Elizabeth rules the roost but will soon relinquish the maternal mantle to Mary. But when Jane, a feisty northern newcomer, clashes with Mary, the rules of the fight go out of the window and everything descends into brawl. ‘Ain’t no ladies here!’ cackles Mary in acknowledgement of the gender-bending horror of it all, while Thomas the pimp censors them for being ‘inappropriate’ (in one of several occasions when the play ducks into the vernacular of 2014).
But in fact, it’s the two supposedly powerful men of the house who endure the greatest crises of identity. They claim to be dealing in slaves but are mocked by the ladies for being shackled to this pathetic enterprise. With the shrewdness of Moll Flanders, the women control and humiliate them, and at one point, Mother Elizabeth is to be heard telling Thomas about how he could have done more with his life. Although hastily closed off, the final scene is a knockout: emphasising how inverted the power has become. Punching Jane manages rowdy subordination and bleak history in equal measure, ultimately emphasising the total relativity of that power.
Punching Jane runs until 29 June at the Courtyard Theatre, Bowling Green Walk, 40 Pitfield Street, N1 6EU. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.