Anna Locke - Australian Stage
Beautiful, loud, compelling, gut wrenching, ritualistic and brilliant are some of the words I would use to describe Beautiful Burnout. In Perth for two weeks as part of the Perth International Arts Festival, The National Theatre of Scotland have joined with Frantic Assembly to bring Perth audiences another knockout performance, after enthralling us a few years ago with Black Watch.
The world of boxing is explored in ritualistic detail in this tale about five wannabe boxers. Dina (Vicki Manderson) is a woman in a man's world, boxing with the men because she needs revenge and to fight back. Ainsley (Stuart Martin) is more geek than nerd, whilst Neil (Eddie Kay) has talent on his good days, but it's hard to tell when those good days will be. Ajay "the cobra" (Taqi Nazeer) is good, and he knows it. He has ideas that differ to their trainer Mr Bobby Burgess (Ewan Stewart). He has an ego that runs away with him.
Young Cameron Burns (Kevin Guthrie), only son to single mother Carlotta (Blythe Duff), is going to be a star, and has a natural talent that is beaten into shape by rigorous training. With these boxers, Burgess begins to believe that the glass is half full saying, "there are princes amongst the frogs at the moment".
Written by Bryony Lavery, this is a physical play, demanding much from both the performers and the audience. The performers are not boxers. They are professional actors, who spent weeks in training to perfect the techniques of boxing, and they combine them with graceful, sharp, precise dance moves to effectively evoke the boxing world. To a non boxer it looks realistic and it looks like it hurts.
For a solid 90 minutes on stage the ensemble box and train, then manage to have a normal conversation 10 seconds later. You can see the sweat dripping off them (thankfully, the place was well air-conditioned), and it was evident the audience was impressed. Here the company have managed to combine brutality with grace, physical agility with beauty.
Co-directed by Frantic Assembly's Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, Beautiful Burnout is a true ensemble piece, the likes of which I haven't seen for a while. As the mother of young Cameron, Duff injected humour into the piece, perfectly portraying a loving and devoted yet exasperated mother of a young adult, ably assisted by some excellent text by Lavery. Guthrie was mesmerising to watch, I could see the growth in his boxing and persona over time (no mean feat in 90 minutes), and his eventual downfall brought tears to my eyes.
Like a thrust stage, the audience sit on 3 sides of Laura Hopkins's set; a raised boxing ring, with a round circle marked out inside a square. There are no ropes, which is all the more credit to the actors given the ferocity of some of the training regiments and boxing matches we see. Stairs at the back of the square provide access, behind which multiple TV screens project visuals throughout (by Ian William Galloway).
Music is provided by electronic music leaders Underworld. The music is perfect, although it would have been nice to be able to speak before the show began (i.e. turn the music down). Energised, heavy beats, fast paced and perfectly in sync with the performers, this was one creative element that stood out above the rest. For audience members wanting more, Underworld were recently announced as music directors for the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Beautiful Burnout is full of contrasts. Above all it is exceptional, and definitely one to add to the festival list.