At university I designed the odd bit of programmes & publicity, so I do still take an interest in it, and the National Theatre of Scotland and Frantic Assembly's production of Beautiful Burnout
has one of the most eye-catching publicity images I've seen all year (photo of Taqi Nazeer, who plays Ajay, by Ela Włodarczyk.) But sometimes things like these could be a mixed blessing - I mean, since I doubted there was actually going to be any underwater boxing featured, could the show actually live up to the poster?
It's a sport I have no interest in, so it might seem odd that this is my second play about boxing in a matter of months
, but it should seem less so considering this is the new work by Bryony Lavery, whose Kursk
was such a hit with me. So even before it won a Fringe First in Edinburgh, I'd booked to see this. Commissioned by Frantic Assembly's Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett (the former a lifelong boxing fan) who also direct the show, it differs from something like Sucker Punch
in that the sport isn't a metaphor or a means to tell a different story, instead the intention is to capture a particular atmosphere they associate with boxing gyms. This is a touring production, and in London it's playing at York Hall, an actual gym in Bethnal Green, in a hall where actual matches are put on. The setting is essentially a boxing ring but without the ropes, plus a bank of TV screens behind it; Laura Hopkins' set looks very simple but has a lot of pleasing little surprises hidden around it.
Most of the action takes place in a gym run by Bobby (Ewan Stewart) as we follow a number of his protégés: Ajay, the most talented but least disciplined fighter; the unpredictable Neil (Eddie Kay;) Ainsley (the rather gorgeous Henry Pettigrew, who happens to have amazing arms) and Dina (Vicki Manderson) who won't hear of being sidelined into women's boxing. One by one they fall away from Bobby, leaving the most recent arrival, Ryan Fletcher's Cameron, who by the end will, naturally, have a make-or-break fight on his hands. Providing an alternative viewpoint is Cameron's mother (Lorraine M McIntosh) who starts the play by doing laundry, and increasingly finds herself having to wash out blood instead of just sweat. Frantic Assembly's known for highly physical theatre, and so the story is told not just through Lavery's witty script but also through movement and dance, from a slow, balletic scene where Bobby straps Cameron's wrists up for the first time, to workouts that turn into frenetic dance routines, to a physical scene between Pettigrew and Kay that had some of the audience gasping at their moves. A couple of the actors look a bit too old to be playing boxers just starting out, but there's no doubting they're all up to the physical challenges they're given.
As the title (taken from one of the Underworld songs that provide the soundtrack) suggests, it's the inherent contradictions of the sport that are being looked at here, the brutality and danger in the "noble art." You might not actually
get any underwater boxing, but the images created are impressive enough and the cast work hard to make a memorable show.Beautiful Burnout
by Bryony Lavery is booking until the 2nd of October at York Hall; then continuing its tour in Glenrothes, Sheffield and Chichester.