Guy Somerset - NZ Listener
From the get-go, boxing drama Beautiful Burnout is an intoxicating 90 minutes of theatre – and that’s not taking into account the waft of aftershave from Orlando Bloom in the seat in front of me on opening night. Bloom, Sir Ian McKellen (is there an International Arts Festival opening he hasn’t been to?), Martin Freeman, Ken Stott and other Hobbit cast members were out in force for this co-production from UK company Frantic Assembly and the National Theatre of Scotland, whose Black Watch was such a big hit at the 2008 festival.
Beautiful Burnout looks like repeating that success this year, through the sheer strength of its staging, acting and dialogue, although its storyline and predictable plot trajectory aren’t of nearly the same order.
The play is set in the Glasgow gym of boxing trainer Bobby Burgess (Ewan Stewart) and revolves around newcomer Cameron Burns (Kevin Guthrie) - watched over by his mother, Carlotta (Blythe Duff) - and fellow “noble art” aspirants Dina Massie (Vicki Manderson), Ajay Chopra (Taqi Nazeer), Neil Neill (Eddie Kay) and Ainsley Binnie (Stuart Martin).
Bobby is the calm (not to say becalmed), curmudgeonly, impossible-to-please fount of all wisdom of a thousand boxing movies, but he’s nicely played by Stewart; Carlotta is the sceptical, scathing counterbalance to his flights of pugilistic philosophising and mysticism, and Duff both gets and lives up to some of writer Bryony Lavery’s best lines.
And Lavery has a lot of good lines, in a script that shifts register effortlessly between the rhetorical and the grittily realistic, between sharp-witted and sharp-tongued comedy and the affectingly poignant.
The cast manage those shifts with the same apparent ease – although there is nothing actually easeful about this production. The sweat on the backs of the boxers’ T-shirts in the opening scene may well have been sprayed on but it isn’t long before the beads flying from their faces are real, as director/choreographers Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett have them dancing and fighting around the stage to the accompaniment of pounding electronic music and strobe lighting.
Along with designer Laura Hopkins’s compact, multi-functional stage (behold that washing machine rising from below), Carolyn Downing’s sound design must take particular credit in the production, especially in the boxing scenes where Graham and Hoggett freeze-frame the action to allow one of the fighters to walk around the stilled scene (very The Matrix) or Downing has to create the muffled ghostly thrum after a knock to the head has taken out a fighter’s hearing.
Some of the fighting in the earlier boxing scenes is a little on the limp side (the limbering up is more convincing), but the climactic sequence leaves no such doubts.
The younger cast members are every bit a match for Stewart and Duff, whether they’re being cocksure or broken (keep an eye out for Nazeer, only recently graduated from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, in this last regard).
The standout is Manderson as the gobby “lassie” Dina, although God help anyone foolish enough to let her hear them calling her a lassie. That’s the real God, by the way, not self-appointed God “King Bobby”, whose fallibility the play comes to demonstrate.
What’s so disappointing is it does so in such a hackneyed way. Dina’s destiny is both plausible and packs a powerful punch; that of other characters leaves you rolling your eyes and sucks the oxygen out of the play.
After so much research into boxing on the parts of Graham and Hoggett, one might have hoped for a fresher, wrong-footing outcome. But then maybe – to quote a song by onetime Glaswegian Lloyd Cole – “the reason it’s a cliché is because it’s true”.
BEAUTIFUL BURNOUT, by Bryony Lavery, directed and choreographed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, Frantic Assembly/National Theatre of Scotland, TSB Bank Arena, Wellington, until March 18, as part of the New Zealand International Arts Festival.