BEAUTIFUL BURNOUT, Frantic Assembly and National theatre of Scotland at the York Theatre, Seymour Centre; 18-29 January 2012. Photos: main, Eddie Kay, Kevin Guthrie and Taqi Nazeer; Blythe Duff.
ENGLISH playwright Bryony Lavery most recently and notably gave us Kursk (Sydney Opera House), a forensic and thrilling dive into the strange and dangerous milieu of naval submariners. That experience would appear to have given her a taste for male-dominated worlds and this time, in Beautiful Burnout, it's the boxing gym. In close collaboration with Frantic Assembly and the National Theatre of Scotland she's written a funny, exciting, unpredictable and perceptive script. It charts the shifting relationships between a clutch of young hopefuls, and with their master, the omnipresent martinet otherwise known as the trainer.
"Blood on a tissue on the floor of the train / Sun goes down, temperature drops / Beautiful burnout, beautiful burnout…" so go the lyrics to the Underworld track, Beautiful Burnout, a classic techno piece from 2007 to be found on the album, Oblivion With Bells. As well as flooding the York with instant energy and urgency even before the show begins, it also matches the adrenaline pumping routine of the boxers in training. And the fragmentary lyric offers a glimpse of the grim reality that underpins the show.
Beneath the apparently simple motivations of the young men who dream and sweat in the feverish environs of the gym lies a harsh universal truth. While they are (hopefully) learning self respect, self control and discipline as well as the skills to survive and prosper - because their dream is fame and fortune. Yet the fact is, their origins in underclass poverty are most likely to mean the only trace of their presence on earth could easily be "blood on a tissue on the floor of the train".
Ajay (Taqi Nazeer), Ainsley (Stuart Martin), Cameron (Kevin Guthrie), Neil (Eddie Kay) and Dina (Vicki Manderson) are the most likely lads - and lass - at Bobby Burgess's (Ewan Stewart) gym. He is their god, their sergeant major, their father figure; if he says "push ups" they say "how many?" If he tells them "yes" or "no", they might pout but they do not disobey. Except Ajay - Ajay Chopra a "wee boron lad from Paisley" - who wants to be known as "the Cobra" and, like the others, can't wait to turn pro. But unlike the others, he's the one who could go all the way if only he can be persuaded to quit showboating.
Life beyond the gym and the ring is embodied in the acidic presence of Cameron's mum, Carlotta (Blythe Duff). She rapidly and vividly sketches in underclass Glasgow and the boxing environment by addressing the audience while loading the washing machine and getting breakfast for her ever-ravenous son. She's a single mother since her hubby - the skank shagger who's shacked up with that skank Sheila Diver - skedaddled. Carlotta sparkles with the trenchant humour and sharp tongue that are the archetypal survival techniques of women at the sharp end of society's unkindness.
Duff will be familiar to fans of ABC TV's Taggart as the world-weary crime fighter DS Jackie Reid; here, however, she is much, much further down the social ladder. Or, as Carlotta sardonically tells us, "My son sees me as quite far doon the food chain…It goes: Famous Boxers Alive Or Dead. Any Boxers. Anybody who isnae a boxer still but knows anything aboot boxing. Males. Fit Lassies. Lassies. Dogs. Cartoon Characters. Me." It's a compelling performance, simultaneously central to the drama and peripheral to her boy's existence. Your heart aches for her even as you flinch from her razor tongue, satirical smile and needle sharp eyes.
The action happens on a raised, boxing ring-style stage on a stage (no ropes) that thrusts into the audience. It places onlookers in the thick of the sweat and high emotional temperature generated and is often as compelling and thrilling as the real thing: one of the oldest forms of theatre. Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett aka Frantic Assembly are the co-directors and choreographers of the show and with designer Laura Hopkins, lighting designer Andy Purves, sound designer Carolyn Downing and video designer Ian William Galloway, they have created an intense and shocking domain for Burgess and his proteges. A rear wall of screens shows fragments of faces, action, the cosmos and other arresting if blurry images; they suggest shards of dreams, half remembered aspirations, passing glances and, more chillingly, the out of focus vision of a boy who's just been savagely punched in the head.
The stories of the lads and lass travel a well-lit path of ambition, stumbles, realisation and disappointments, but that's not a criticism. For most in a typical audience, the boxing gym and dirt-poor Glasgow will be as alien as the dark side of a distant planet so, it's the easy recognition that makes the play so captivating. And the two women - young, aggro Dina and the heartbreaking Carlotta - rather than being tokens or anachronisms, are actually the moral heart of the play. "Fact" - as walking encyclopaedia Ainslie is fond of saying.
Ainslie is the provider of provocative snippets of information, such as that horse riding is more dangerous than boxing "Fact"; "Scottish dancing started as essentially pugilistic; fact," and so on. What he doesn't say, however, is that other extreme sports that are statistically likely to kill more participants in a year than boxing don't actually involve one person deliberately trying to land a killer blow on the other person's head. Fact.
At the same time, what Beautiful Burnout does quite beautifully is make it all understandable, if not acceptable. It's natural theatre: thrilling, dangerous, spectacular and visceral. It's also gloriously choreographed and tender to the point of tears. The final sequence - a virtual dance of death - is ravishing in its loveliness and harrowing as only a catastrophic KO could be. It's also the least predictable moment in the piece and don't let anyone tell you what happens. Suffice to say that Blythe Duff and Kevin Guthrie perform a pas de deux that I'll never forget. Brilliant theatre.