Davin Zampatti - The West Australian
We stood on the pavement wiping our eyes and gasping for breath. The cause of this disruption to our emotional equilibrium was the mighty Beautiful Burnout, the collaboration between the National Theatre of Scotland and Frantic Assembly, the company of directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett that anchors this year's PIAF theatre program.
I only hope that the rest of Jonathan Holloway's first festival has other shows as good as this. It will have none better.
Bryony Lavery's story, stripped down, is standard off the rack fare - young lad Cameron Burns (Kevin Guthrie) with dutifully loving and accommodating mother Carlotta (Blythe Duff) joins the gym of hard-bitten trainer Bobby Burgess (Ewan Stewart) and rises through the amateur ranks to get a crack at the big time against his former stable mate Ajay "The Asian Cobra" Chopra (Taqi Nazeer). It's their bout, and its shattering consequences, which sends us back out to the street in the breathless condition I've described.
The play's good, taut, disciplined writing fills out its characters sufficiently for us to connect to them without distracting us from the main game. It also presents the issues that swirl around the sweet science with clarity but without moralising. Its main virtue, though, is the rock-solid narrative platform it provides for Graham and Hoggett to produce physical theatre of stunning virtuosity and excitement.
If sport is devilishly hard to fictionalise on film - perhaps boxing and baseball are the only games to produce a body of satisfying cinema - you'd be forgiven for believing it was impossible to bring to the live stage. It's the miracle of Beautiful Burnout that the muscularity, discipline and beauty of training and sparring, and, eventually, the peril and violence of the prize fight, come to life with an intensity and authenticity of unparalleled effectiveness.
These beautifully staged and executed set pieces serve a deeper purpose; they are a window into the dark, narcotic heart of sport, boxing above all, where pain is dulled by effort and hopelessness replaced by the lure of the prize. It's why millions are drawn to play and watch a sport condemned by most of the rest of us as brutal, primal and impossible to justify.
The performances are uniformly pitch-perfect; Duff brings a sassy, good-humoured worldliness to the weary life her son's choices gives her, while Guthrie seems to grow tougher, stronger and more imperilled before our eyes as the play, and his character's career, progresses. So too do the performers playing his fellow young fighters; the sleek, dangerous Nazeer, Eddie Kay as the hot-headed Neil "Fists of Steel" Neill and Vicki Manderson, whose ferocious Dina Massie "The Battling Lassie's" disintegration through the climactic fight scene is as heartbreaking as it is startling. Stewart's Bobby Burgess is as ethically solid and morally blind as any general in the trenches, and Stuart Martin deserves special mention for his clumsy, love-struck Ainsley Binnie, the oversized runt of Burgess's litter.
Laura Hopkin's design, and the lighting, sound (at last theatre music played loud - really loud - enough) and visuals are pulsatingly superb, and the soundtrack by British electronic band Underworld, which had the audience threatening to leap from their seats and punch the air before a single actor had appeared on stage, might just have been the very best thing in a superlative night of theatre.
I understand there are still seats left for this season. Whatever you do, make sure you are one of the lucky ones who snap them up.