Punching Jane (which just begs to be called Punching Judy, not only because of the obvious pun, but because “judy” is slang for a young girl) has a lot going for it: a strong and versatile cast, several energetic and well-directed fight scenes, and an intriguing setting (a brothel in Georgian London). The relationships between the three girls and their madam are swiftly and credibly established, and the two men nominally in charge, Harry and Thomas, are suitably weak and creepy: this is most definitely the women's story.

The opening scene is of a pair of female boxers circling one another in the ring: it's meant to be a "fancy fight" (i.e. no proper hitting) but Yorkshire lass Jane (Emma Pilson), breaks the rules and lamps opponent Mary (Kayleigh Hawkins), earning the ire of brothel madam Elizabeth. Slowly the set-up emerges: newcomer Jane wants to establish her territory, whereas Mary fears losing her privileged position as Elizabeth's favourite, and is wary and jealous of Jane. Meanwhile, Elizabeth (Lisa Sheerin) just wants to retire quietly, and simple Molly (Lianne Bowley) is terrified of going back to Bedlam.  

The first thing to say is that the fight scenes (as might be expected when the director and many of the actors have trained on the East 15 stage combat course) are excellent. The final showdown in particular is wince-inducingly realistic, with hitting, biting, kicking and even a stool cracked over someone's head. Ironically, Jane is the only character not to get punched in the ring, though she gets a thorough pasting, like everyone else, in this climactic free-for-all.

More surprisingly, the script is subtle, well-written and feels authentic to the period, liberally peppered as it is with 1700s slang ("bubbies", "cully" etc.) There's a great scene between oleaginous brothel-owner Thomas (Ed Young) and Mary where he tells her that he likes to f**k "something on the turn", and answers her constant accusations of not being the man his father was with his assessment of her own diminishing value as saleable flesh. Young is shudderingly believable as this nasty piece of work, and the far from past-it Kayleigh Hawkins gives as good as she gets.

So, as mentioned, there's a great deal to like here: an excellent ensemble cast, a complex, involving story and tight fights. The big problem with the show is that in this version (Tiny Dog Productions is still developing the piece) the story is cut off at the knees by an abrupt surprise ending after only an hour. Therefore it's probably best to watch Punching Jane as a sort of scratch-night production, and judge it not for what it is now, but what it could become – and it could be really, really good. Even the less obvious technical aspects of this show are impressive for a small company with limited resources: Lianne Bowley's costumes look as close to authentic as anyone on a shoestring budget could expect, and her wound and bruise makeup is convincing and flawless.

Moreover, co-authors Ed Young and Jess Farley have written a genuinely involving Act One, full of drama, pathos and surprise reversals: and when they have an Act Two to match it, which unravels and answers the questions raised by the cliffhanger curtain scene, they will have a genuinely exciting script on their hands. Until then, Punching Jane is a very enjoyable (and sometimes eye-watering) way to pass an hour.

Punching Jane, at The Last RefugeKaty Darby reviews Punching Jane at The Last Refuge.4