Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Beautiful Burnout, Pleasance Courtyard

Review: Beautiful Burnout, Pleasance Courtyard

Published on Culture Wars, 24.08.2010
This review won the Allen Wright Award, 2010

When it comes to tales of sporting endeavour, we all know the formula. Set up an opposition of sorts, usually either between the best of friends or the bitterest of rivals, and gradually bring it to fruition in a contest on which everything rides. Prior to this, show both parties developing, taking knocks and growing increasingly determined. Along the way, you’re advised to throw in a near-miss, whereby the protagonist almost misses out on said final showdown, only for fate to throw chuck them a lifeline.

In the main, Bryony Lavery sticks to the rules in her treatment of five aspiring Scottish boxers, subverting proceedings with a final sucker punch that, though well concealed, isn’t quite the knockout blow that’s needed. Cynicism aside, she pads the skeleton with some muscular subplots, notably by throwing some femininity into the ring.

Bobby Burgess – or God to those he’s training – tends to his stable of teenage pugilists, of whom Ajay Chopra (Taqi Nazeer) is the most talented. He knows it as well: showboating as he dances around the others, winding them up and humiliating them with his class. In the other corner, Cameron Burns (Ryan Fletcher) is a new recruit, a born boxer immediately hooked on the sports’ cocktail of adrenaline and self-discipline. In a perfectly-pruned metaphor, Lavery has them both seeing stars as each dreams of newfound possibilities and a life worth living.

It’s the softer edges in Lavery’s script that are most interesting. There’s Ainslie Binnie (Henry Pettigrew), the academic of the group, who’s more interested in astrology than his own star’s rise, but still smarts at Bobby’s rejection. There’s Dina Massie (Vicki Manderson), the sort of smash’n’grab girl found in the Beano, eager to prove herself with the big boys. Gutsiest of all though is Carlotta Burns (Lorraine M McIntosh), a mother who just wants the best for her son, pleading a case both for and against his involvement in the sport. She never takes a punch, but it’s her hurt that surfaces like a shiner.

But Beautiful Burnout’s narratives are less exciting than its staging. Frantic Assembly have achieved high-definition theatre to the techno-thump of Underworld’s soundtrack. You feel every punch that connects, as if your own senses are knocked sideways. Lights flash, sound muffles, time slows. Directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett have replicated the televisual experience brillantly, such that the ring rotates 360˚ and the action slows to a freeze-frame. What emerges is a love-hate relationship with the sport. They allow you the satisfaction of a palpable hit and the shockwaves of the violence. The boxer’s aims are distilled down to the attempt to “administer a shock to the nervous system and overloading the brain so it crashes.”

In that it does more than show those in the ring, even the support network of trainers, referees and mothers behind it. It envelopes us; the spectator. “Why”, it asks accusingly, “have you come here to watch this? What did you hope to see? What did you think would happen?”

Photograph: Frantic Assembly

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