Beautiful Burnout marks another collaboration between The National Theatre of Scotland and Frantic Assembly, who brought us the splendid Black Watch. Bryony Lavery’s new play about boxing, that most controversial of sports, is undeniably a powerful piece of theatre.
Set in Glasgow, it attempts to explore the many challenges facing those struggling with societal troubles in modern Scotland through the medium of a life lived in three minute shots at glory. Via the mentorship of a Glasgow gym trainer, four boys and one girl choose sport over the shop-lifting, drugs and junk food they might otherwise enjoy.
It’s clear from the outset that this is a showcase for Scottish talent, Scottish issues and Scottish drama. The physical prowess of the cast is impressive with the energetic players proving more than a match for the (slightly lengthy) hour and twenty minutes of uninterrupted theatre.
The choreography is solid and precise having been developed by the directors Scott Graham and Steve Hoggett working closely along with the cast. On occasion it even delves into elements of dance, specifically when young Cameron (Ryan Fletcher) is given his boxing wraps.
The ring they are confined to is a swivel affair with a brick-layered video casting in the rear, while sweat drips from each side of the square. This allows for an intense atmosphere and impressive slow-motion fight scenes, but when it comes time to swing punches and pound out the Underworld soundtrack, the stage and audio-visuals become the real stars of the piece. The performances at times come across as brash rather than beautiful with characters often lapsing into two-dimensional familiarity. Not enough is done to give you a real investment in their journey and, though believable, they often feel like over-familiar archetypes.
There does come a point in the middle of the proceedings where the whole production begins to ask questions about modern Scotland’s identity and relationship with itself and its youth. However, by the conclusion, you can’t help feeling short-changed by the decision to fall back on traditional themes. Yes, there is mention here of the social hypocrisy of a society that flinches from blood-sports while the reality of drug and knife culture blossoms. The camaraderie of the boys in the ring is contrasted with the religious rivalry that might otherwise separate them on the streets.
We see too the exploration of the moral credit that now drives so many modern families; parents sacrifice everything in the hope that their children might make the kind of money to lift them out of poverty. Often this is undertaken without realising the real price of the erosion of the work-ethic that marked so much of post-war Scotland.
These are modern concerns, worthy of exploration. In the end though, most of these themes are barely explored and the cliché of tragedy, through health and gender issues, becomes the eulogy of so much of what Beautiful Burnout tries to do.
This is, however, quality theatre that does both the NTS and the Fringe proud in many ways. It will no doubt entertain audiences and tour successfully. The boxing scenes are superbly performed and the research has obviously been meticulous. We are given a peek into a world that many of us may have little knowledge of and the cast handle their parts with aplomb.
This is familiar Scottish drama and the unashamed tub-thumping of a tradition traversing Tony Roper to Trainspotting is not something to be wholly condemned. It is a slight disappointment however that Scottish theatre explores society so often through the binary antithesis of comedy or tragedy. So often too, the answers remain the same for every generation. Perhaps that is the final question that Burnout supposes, but how much more beautiful it might be if Scottish theatre were less about traditional answers and more about the questions of the future?
29 Aug (not 16, 23), 7.30pm,