Edinburgh Fringe 2010
Beautiful Burnout is an exploration of the world of boxing set in Glasgow, at the club run by Bobby Burgess, an old school boxing coach. The play follows the fortunes of 4 hopeful young men’s quest (and one young woman’s) to make it into the ranks of professional boxers.
Over the course of the show, two rise to this rank – the wilful Ajay Chopra (of Asian origin – with obvious reference to Khan) and Cameron Burns the Scottish newcomer to the club – and the play builds slowly but surely to their climactic match and its consequences.
Frantic Assembly collaborate with Bryony Lavery again (after Stockholm) and the NTS (for whom they choreographed the hit show Black Watch) on a piece that is highly physical and tightly choreographed to explore contemporary boxing.
Beautiful Burnout begins promisingly: the audience sit on 3 sides facing a stylishly minimal ring and screens of TVs on the back wall as we are presented with the figure of the referee, alone in his dance between two projected fighters. It is clear early on that this is a highly accomplished piece of physical theatre: movement sequences are faultlessly executed (as you’d expect from Frantic), to an energising soundtrack by Underworld and it is all beautifully designed.
Co-directors Graham and Hoggett state in the programme they want to bring the reality of boxing into the performance, but unfortunately, what we get is lots of direct address from the performers in a rather expositional way. It can feel at times like a docu-drama – characters are eager to impart information (all kinds of information) about boxing, but what is lacking is a strong script or any real dramatic journey for the central characters. Ewan Stewart who plays the key role of coach does not quite convince, whilst the young cast give it their all in some exuberantly energetic group movement sequences. There’s plenty of sweat here, for sure, but what the piece fails to achieve is a depth to the inner reality of its male characters.
Ironically, it is the women on the edges of this world – Lorraine M McIntosh’s sardonic, long-suffering mother who has some of the wittiest lines, or Vicki Manderson’s utterly committed performance of a raging girl in a macho world – who most carry the humanity of the play, but by the end they have been pushed to the edges of the story, and we get a rather formulaic Rocky-style stand-off and somewhat predictable ending. There is no great moral dilemma here, and it is hard to care for the protagonists, in contrast to the journey of Mickey Rourke’s The Wrestler.
The piece does sometimes capture the genuine danger and excitement of boxing in its movement, and occasionally attains a real poetry – three referees simultaneously signing, ducking and shuffling together like over-ambitious waiters, or the mother talking to us with her head in the freezer. What’s interesting though is these moments of heightened theatricality often take place outside of the boxing itself.
It’s as if Graham and Hoggett believe that the energy of the sport is enough to generate real drama by itself. Whilst Stockholm (also by Lavery) contained some real psychological insight, it feels here as if the script stays on the outside of the ring both in the portrayal of its characters and its story, so that by the inevitable tragedy at the end, it’s hard to care deeply – despite all the formidable work that has clearly gone into this handsome production.