Boxing has never really been a sport particularly well represented in the theatre. Cinema, of course, has several classic films dedicated to pugilism – Raging Bull, Million Dollar Baby, and Stallone’s Rocky Balboa series have all examined the pros and cons of this most controversial of sports. It’s a different story when it comes to plays.
This year though, has seen something of a sea change. Roy Williams’ Sucker Punch had a successful run at the Royal Court in the summer, and Bryony Lavery’s Beautiful Burnout, after a premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe, is now touring the UK.
Lavery’s play is a visually stunning piece of physical theatre which doesn’t shy away from examining the downsides of “the noble art”.
The story follows five young boxers training in Bobby Burgess’ Glaswegian gym – a place where the trainer is known as God, and an iron discipline is drilled into the boxers learning their trade. The characters range from Ajay, a young man with a stratospheric talent but an ego the size of a house, Cameron, the new kid on the block, and Dina, a feisty young girl from a troubled background who holds no truck with the tokenism of ‘women’s boxing’.
Surrounding these are Burgess, the stern authoritation figure, and Carlotta, Cameron’s mother (played by Lorraine McIntosh, the former Deacon Blue singer). Lavery mixes in some heartfelt monologues with quick, witty exchanges between the boxers, but it’s the training and boxing sequences that are likely to linger longest in the mind of the audience.
These are brilliantly choreographed, with a very effective soundtrack from Underworld – with the addition of some inventive video sequences splashed across the televisions lining the back of the set, it makes for a memorable watch. The stage design is also perfect – just a boxing ring with a revolving stage utilised perfectly, with punchbags flying in from the corners every now and again.
Thankfully, Laverty never lets the visuals overshadow the script, and the acting from the ensemble is uniformly excellent. Vicki Manderson is particularly good as Dina, her fierce, defensive demeanour hiding an aching vulnerability, while Taqi Nazeer, in his professional acting debut, swaggers convincingly in a performance that is bound to remind some Sheffield theatregoers of Naseem Hamed.
It’s not all perfect though – the 95 minute running time means that some crucial areas of the story are skated over: one of the boxers, Neil Neill’s downfall is passed over in a couple of lines, and Dina’s journey from stridently feminist boxer to scantily clad ring girl is never convincingly explained. It’s a necessary flaw given the quick moving, electric pace of the play.
Besides, when the climactic fight arrives, in slow motion with a pulsating soundtrack of Underworld’s title track, all flaws are forgotten. It’s a brilliantly staged scene, and comes complete with a twist that hits you like an emotional right hook to the jaw – a fitting climax to a very memorable piece of theatre from Frantic Assembly.