Frantic Assembly’s Beautiful Burnout, a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland, debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe as part of the Pleasance Courtyard’s 2010 season; a recast and restructured version is now touring nationally. This being Frantic, of course, it’s not your average black-box fringe show enjoying a post-Edinburgh tour of pub-upstairses; it’s the kind of physical theatre and multimedia event for which they’re known, blending text with movement, video and music. Co-artistic directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett direct with their distinctive physical style in this second collaboration with the playwright Bryony Lavery.
Lavery’s script is a rather conventional story following a group of young aspiring boxers from working class Glasgow and the trajectory of a tragic young hero, Cameron Burns. The writer tackles the noble art/ blood sport debate of boxing in sharp, expletive-ridden dialogue that steers clear of sentiment, if not cliché. These two arguments are embodied by Cameron’s passionately authoritarian trainer (Keith Fleming) and proud but terrified mother Carlotta (Julie Wilson Nimmo), through whom Lavery to some extent deconstructs the idea that the sport is either a good or a bad thing. However, we’re dealing in fairly stock characters here, and whilst the actors are for the most part believable (Nimmo does admirably, despite looking too young to be Cameron’s mother), they just haven’t been coloured in sufficiently.
If the plot leaves you a little cold, there’s no doubt that the show is visually (and aurally) spectacular; Graham and Hoggett don’t pull any punches when it comes to depicting the violence, lithe virility and discipline of boxing, with their trademark choreography set to a pounding beat by Underworld. Frantic’s style works best when the movement enhances and merges with the dialogue; the marriage of text and physicality is not quite harmonious in Beautiful Burnout as there are a few too many music-video style set-pieces which could be better integrated. Physicality is used quite literally in this production– since we barely leave the boxing-ring, it mostly consists of stylised fighting and training sequences (even the dreaded montage). Thrilling as it is to sit back and experience the pure exuberance of it all (you can probably see the actors’ sweat from the back row), it’s the intersection of language and motion – the plane that’s reached when the two combine – where the real genius of Frantic lies.
No one element should take precedence in a total-theatre production like this, and Laura Hopkins’ set, a bleakly industrial boxing-ring featuring a double-revolve, is suitably innovative; the furniture of Cameron’s house rises from the floor to create the two settings of the relentless, masculine gym and the nurturing home . In its original incarnation the show was in thrust, whereas it’s now a conveniently tourable end-on. Sitting in the audience of the original felt like actually spectating at a boxing-ring, or even an amphitheatre, making the ‘gods and men’ of Beautiful Burnout seem almost like the gods and men of Greek drama. It seems a petty thing to pick up on, but much of the intensity is lost because of this – the production feels smaller, more diluted, than back at the Pleasance.
Beautiful Burnout was never as gritty or insightful as it thinks it is, but even if it burns a little less fiercely than the first time around, this funny, earnest and visceral production is worth watching for its sparks of beautiful brilliance.
Beautiful Burnout is currently on a national tour. For more information and tour dates and venues see the Frantic Assembly website.