Ryan Fletcher in Beautiful Burnout
© Gavin Evans)
Ryan Fletcher in Beautiful Burnout
© Gavin Evans)
The latest production by the acclaimed National Theatre of Scotland, Beautiful Burnout, a collaboration between physical theatre company Frantic Assembly and playwright Bryony Lavery, is an unusual and often effective take on the sport of boxing. Yet, too often, Lavery's script feels secondary to the sheer physical force and raw energy of the work.

The play -- currently at the Edinburgh Fringe and already set to play London and tour the UK this fall -- focuses on Cameron Burns (Ryan Fletcher), a talented amateur boxer with a desire to turn pro. Boxing is his life; he breathes, sweats and bleeds boxing, much to the concern of his proud but anxious mother (Lorraine McIntosh), who's left washing his training kit every night.

Burns trains under the eye of the terrier-like Bobby Burgess (Ewan Stewart) -- a man who demands total obedience and will brook no discussion. Burgess is also training the arrogant, over-confident Ajay Chopra (Taqi Nazeer) and the anger-fuelled Dina Massie (Vicki Manderson), who refuses to make the switch to women's boxing.

The action takes place on a raised square platform backed by a bank of television monitors. Co-directors and choreographers Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett have created pounding, visceral training sequences set to the music of Underworld and graceful, near-balletic fight scenes in which the contenders lunge and block in slow motion. In these scenes, Graham and Hoggett capture some of the skill and poise that have made people term boxing the "noble art" without shying away from showing the violence of the sport.

The ensemble cast gives their all, fully embracing the physical demands of the production, sweat and spittle spraying from them. Lavery knows how to write male camaraderie and the gym sequences are full of convincing banter. Still, there's disappointingly little in the way of exploration of what drove these boys -- even Cameron -- to want to become fighters.

McIntosh, as the conflicted mother who is excited by her son's success but also frightened for him, helps ground the production emotionally, and Manderson makes Dina even more complex and compelling than many of the male characters.

While the play's ending feels telegraphed, it still, for want of a better term, packs a real punch.