Review: Mighty Atoms (Hull Truck Theatre)

Mark Babych directs the third play – inspired by boxing legend Barbara Buttrick – in his Hull trilogy

In the lift after I saw Mighty Atoms, two audience members enthused about Amanda Whittington’s play, especially, one said, its comedy and its history. The piece is mainly about empowerment, inspiration and the power of determination and all that equates to a nice variety, but also a slight dislocation of tone.

The history at least is clear enough. The play is a tribute to Hull-born Barbara Buttrick, a pioneering women’s world boxing champion in the 1950s and 1960s who was forced for much of her career to take on allcomers in boxing booths. The story of Buttrick is told in fragments, her spirit (played by Kat Rose-Martin) dances through the play, occasionally uttering words of encouragement or instruction, and on opening night the (real) octogenarian Ms Buttrick received a standing ovation.

With the basic plot-line and the differentiation of the characters we are in fairly familiar territory. A welcoming pub in a rough neighbourhood run by a feisty landlady (Judi Earl) has fallen on hard times. She welcomes any community group and her latest venture is a boxercise class which then becomes a fund-raiser for the new boiler, though why a two-fight bill between novices should raise money in these days of quality female boxing is anyone’s guess.

Taylor Flint (Caitlin Drabble), who lives at the pub, could have been a contender, having missed out on the 2012 Olympics and fell into disgrace. She is persuaded to take the class, consisting of the Polish intellectual who cleans the pub (Maya Barcot), a spirited single mother of four desperate to lose weight (Danielle Henry), a shy loner trying to "find" herself (Olivia Sweeney) and the latest tearaway product of the estate’s family from hell (Anna Doolan).

The ways in which Whittington uses these fairly typical ingredients are always imaginative. The lady in the lift was right: the humour, clever and character-based, often works well. The back stories of the characters are ingenious and convincing, the long act two duologue between Henry and Sweeney, both excellent, as moving as it is believable. But these back stories are undeveloped, so sudden changes become the order of the day: what Whittington has here is material for a six-part television comedy drama. On stage it’s disconcerting to find characters switching so quickly from daggers drawn (almost literally, at one time) to all pulling together. Equally disconcerting is to find, after all the emphasis on taking boxing seriously, that the "fights" are played for comedy cartoon-style.

Mark Babych obtains consistently intelligent and lively performances from the all-female cast and, with the aid of movement director Ella Robson-Guilfoyle, gets great teamwork on the training set pieces, boxing moves sometimes shading into dance.

Earl brings plenty of attack to the role of the landlady and Drabble has all the morose uncertainty of Taylor Flint – perhaps the inexpressiveness is deliberate. Doolan doesn’t waste the gift of the play’s plum part: her Grace Idlewell, barred from the pub even before she was old enough to go, is a tour de force of physical comedy and oddly touching among all her ignorance and brutality.

Mighty Atoms runs at Hull Truck Theatre until 1 July.