This review was written for the Londonist.
We headed to York Hall in Bethnal Green knowing nothing about boxing, and must admit our ignorance wasn’t something we were particularly ashamed of. Saying that, we were intrigued by a play about the so-called ‘noble art’, and ready and willing to be immersed in the gritty world of a Glaswegian gym, to be convinced of the sport’s appeal or at least understand why people become obsessed with it.
A Frantic Assembly and National Theatre of Scotland collaboration, the hype around Beautiful Burnout has been great since their last joint venture was the highly praised and awarded Black Watch. Produced in association with the Barbican, the play about five would- be young boxers, a coach and a mother leaves the confines of the theatre behind and takes the audience directly into the sports hall.
York Hall is a working leisure centre with a boxing past. The set is minimal, the stage a square block that works as a boxing ring and as a kitchen. A bank of TV screens fizzes in the background to a specially designed soundtrack by Underworld. It’s a great idea to put the play on here, but the reality isn’t so perfect.
The acoustics of the space mean the actors have to almost bellow and it was hard to be convinced by dialogue delivered in such a style. Sitting in a room that resembles a large school hall, watching tracksuit clad actors doing a series dance routines mainly made up of star jumps and press ups, delivered in time to booming music, feels rather too much like watching an aerobics class, albeit a stylised one.
The story was a simple one, tracking the journey of a boxer from amateur to pro to hospital bed. We meet the coach, fellow boxers, a referee and his mother along the way. The mother was the best character by far, a tragicomic figure who stumbles across the stage in a variety of cheap heels and battles with a conscience that wants to both protect her son from harm and to see him become a success.
Apart from mum, the characters feel fairly two dimensional. The intriguing female boxer Dina Massie hints at her disturbing past but it’s barely explored and her final desperate act of prancing about the stage in next to nothing makes little sense. We never really find out anything about what motivates any of the young male boxers or their coach, apart from a love of cold hard cash.
Beautiful Burnout was a bit of a disappointment. Our desire to find depth in the world of what many people consider a blood sport wasn’t met. Perhaps that wasn’t the point. We certainly didn’t leave feeling like we’d gained any insight into a secret world of fists and fury, just that we’d watched an energetic sports routine. The performers’ stamina and fitness was deeply impressive at least, and inspired our cycle home to be fast and furious in their honour.
Beautiful Burnout runs at York Hall, Old Ford Road, Bethnal Green until 2nd October. You can buy tickets via the Barbican box office.