Typical, you wait years for a play about boxing and then two come along at once. The similarities between Roy Williams's Sucker Punch, which has just finished its run at the Royal Court, and Bryony Lavery's Beautiful Burnout are striking. Both are set in the sweat-and-sawdust world of a boxing gym, both feature dour, Rottweiler coaches, disaffected youths, plenty of press-ups and both build up to a final terrible bout between two former sparring partners and friends.
But where Sucker Punch used boxing as the backdrop for a meditation on the Brixton riots and race relations, Beautiful Burnout stays firmly within the ropes of the boxing ring. It's less interesting than Sucker Punch for that reason, but on sheer physicality, it wins hands down. That's thanks to Frantic Assembly, specialists in intensely physical spectacle, who have collaborated with the National Theatre of Scotland on the show.
The action takes place on a raised, slick black platform, against a bank of blinking, glittering television screens. Underworld provide the music and the sound is fantastic, pulsing out through the auditorium like a heartbeat. The athletic cast, sweat pouring, punch, jump and skip their way through the show with aggressive zeal. The climactic fight scene, on the other hand, played out skilfully at full tilt, in slow-motion and freeze-frame by Ryan Fletcher and Taqi Nazeer, takes on an almost balletic, hypnotic quality.
Lavery, whose Kursk was a masterclass in male ensemble drama, does a similarly fine job here at charting the changing relationships between the boys. Though all start out equal on the gym floor, as some turn professional, others fall by the wayside. Boxing only offers the glittering prize of a way out, a way up in the world, to a select few.
Two female characters give the piece its heart and a moral dimension. Vicki Manderson and Lorraine M McIntosh are both excellent as the feisty Dina Massie "the battling lassie" and Carlotta, the conflicted mother of a prize fighter who is only too aware that the perks of turning pro are counterbalanced with danger: "What we want is blood. What we want is damage. That's what we're paying tae see!".
Like Black Watch before it, Beautiful Burnout has all of the ingredients of a knock-out hit. With an autumn tour already booked (including a stint at the famous east London boxing venue York Hall), its life beyond the Fringe is assured.
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