“We don’t get given a big bag full of luck, people like us,” says Bobby Burgess – boxing trainer, father figure and hard-nosed realist – to the young hopefuls who enter his Glasgow gym. “A few of us get one little piece. Don’t expect any more. Grab your one little piece of luck.” And grab it they do, with both fists, in Frantic Assembly’s exhilarating new production of Bryony Lavery’s poetic text about life in the ring as an escape from life on the streets.
The gym is the whole world to Cameron, Neil, Ajay, Ainsley and Dina, and without it there’s little doubt they’d be punching seven bells out of each other or someone else. But under Bobby’s gruff, grandiose – “I’m God! I’m King Robert. King Robert the Bruise!” – tutelage, they learn discipline, focus and how to move like the proverbial butterflies. They train together and spar together, bobbing and weaving, jabbing, hooking and upper-cutting like a tight fighting unit, but there are rivalries and personal demons to battle as well as potential opponents.
Ajay is an over-confident contender with stars in his eyes; Dina’s quest to be a Million Dollar Baby (“but without the shite ending”) is more about fighting off her step-father than practising the noble art; and Cameron is a natural, a born boxer whose “fists of fury” might just take him somewhere in life… It’s not a new story – it’s not even a new story about boxing – but Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett’s direction and choreography raise the stakes and the result is compelling, immersive and utterly irresistible.
Performed entirely on a raised platform evoking the ring, it’s during the training sequences and the fight scenes – incorporating a revolving section of the stage – that Beautiful Burnout really hits the mark. A pulsating soundtrack by Underworld mimics the driving beat of the heart in full throb as bodies are pushed to their physical limits in three-minute bursts; on a bank of video screens, a clock counts down the seconds, the numbers blurring and pulsing in and out of focus as muscles and minds are tested almost beyond endurance. There’s no mistaking that this is a blood sport, but there is also an elegance, a balletic quality that celebrates the athleticism and self-control of bodies at the peak of fitness. It really is poetry in motion.
Without exception, the cast convince as fighters in training, and as the no-nonsense surrogate father, Keith Fleming imbues Bobby with a satisfying ambiguity – he provides his protégés with structure and order, doling out commands and reprimands with ribald humour, but ultimately he wants to train a winner, to garner some glory, to be the main event. It is through Cameron’s mother, Carlotta (Julie Wilson Nimmo), alternating between pride, hope and fear, that we glimpse the world outside the ropes, and get some sense of the fall-out when dreams hit the canvas.
This is a great piece of storytelling that throbs with energy, but playing as it did in the main house, at times it felt too far removed, too much like spectacle; when it premiered in Edinburgh in 2010, it was staged in the round, with the audience on three sides, which must have been mesmerizing – to feel the heat of physical exertion, to hear the panting breaths, must have only heightened the intensity of the characters’ desperate ambition. But Frantic Assembly have a massive young following, and they continue to create excellent work that challenges spatial boundaries and flexes theatrical imagery in new and exciting ways. And who’s going to argue with packing out the Theatre Royal with an enthralled crowd of teenagers? Not me.