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Beautiful Burnout

Bryony Lavery
Frantic Assembly and National Theatre of Scotland
Nuffield Theatre, Southampton

Stuart Ryan and Taqi Nazeer in Beautiful Burnout Credit: Helen Maybanks
Ali Craig, Stuart Ryan and Keith Fleming Credit: Helen Maybanks
Beautiful Burnout Credit: Helen Maybanks

Boxing, it’s claimed, is the “noble art” and in Bryony Lavery’s Beautiful Burnout, which won a Fringe First Award in 2010, the brutality and cruelty of the sport is juxtaposed with the dedication, commitment and raw ambition of the participants.

This visceral and thrilling production from Frantic Assembly and the National Theatre of Scotland packs a real punch with knockout performances from a highly talented cast who deliver a physically exhausting staging.

To the sounds of Underworld’s pumping techno beat which counterpoints the production, the packed theatre of mainly young students waited in anticipation for this much-heralded play to begin.

The effective, innovative set design by Laura Hopkins consists of a raised platform that becomes the gym or cleverly changes to become Cameron’s home and of course the boxing ring. At the back is a bank of flat screen monitors that display Ian William Galloway’s impressive commentary on the action. The stone-throwing scene into the water is particularly clever.

The plot follows five Glaswegian youngsters, four lads and a lassie, who desperately want to become professional boxers. They are trained under the iron fist of Bobby Burgess, the stoic Keith Fleming, who rules his gym as if a “God” demanding total dedication to his training programme.

Cameron Burns (Stuart Ryan) has a burning ambition to become a champion much to the angst of his caring mum heartrendingly played by Julie Wilson Nimmo.

Competition in the gym is fierce. Taqi Nazeer is the flashy Asian Ajay, determined to fight in his own style. By contrast, Ali Craig is the gauche Ainslee always quoting facts; he fancies Dina who vigorously questions the sexist politics of boxing and claims, “it’s as good as sex but not as complicated.” Completing the line up is the zealous Neil (Mathew Trevannion) who is resolutely determined to succeed.

Directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett have created a fast-paced, intensive 90-minute play, highly-charged and almost balletic with the actors energetically skipping, bopping, jumping, training and sparring which is totally exhausting to watch.

There are some splendid inventive touches such as the slow motion fight on the revolving stage that is strikingly choreographed with powerful images, all stunningly lit by Andy Purves.

The final fight in the ring complete with all the razzmatazz of a championship bout raises the tension of the two boxers and audience alike. Emotions are running high as the fight commences as these two combatants slug it out for twelve punishing rounds where every jab, hook and uppercut can be flinchingly felt, with a catastrophic result.

Beautiful Burnout is a compelling, mesmerising and hard-hitting play that richly deserved the young audience’s standing ovation. For a play to achieve that from what are normally very sceptical youngsters is a resounding achievement. This was absolutely excellent theatre and not to be missed.

Runs until the 24th of November at The Nuffield and the final date of the tour is the 27th of November to the 1st December at Hull Truck Theatre.

Reviewer: Robin Strapp