Ryan Fletcher and Taqi Nazeer in Beautiful Burnout
(© Gavin Evans)
Ryan Fletcher and Taqi Nazeer in Beautiful Burnout
(© Gavin Evans)
Both boxing aficionados and neophytes are likely to thrill to Beautiful Burnout, a co-production from Frantic Assembly and National Theater of Scotland, making its American premiere at St. Ann's Warehouse. Directed and choreographed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, the production showcases joyously kinetic training and fight sequences that pay loving tribute to the sport, while also reminding audiences of the risks that come with it.

Featuring a script by former Tony Award nominee Bryony Lavery, the play follows Cameron Burns (Ryan Fletcher), an amateur boxer who gets the chance to go professional. Cameron comes across as a fairly ordinary bloke with big dreams that often have to give way to a more mundane reality. Fletcher is likable in the role, and his eyes occasionally light up with a fierce determination that demonstrates Cameron's desire to win.

We see Cameron training under coach Bobby Burgess (Ewan Stewart) and alongside four other boxing hopefuls: Ajay Chopra (Taqi Nazeer), a talented athlete of Punjabi descent, yearning to develop his own style of fighting; Neil Neill (Eddie Kay), who claims to have "fists of steel"; Ainsley Binney (Henry Pettigrew), who balances his boxing with book learning; and Dina Massie (Vicki Manderson), a young woman with anger issues.

Rounding out the cast is Blythe Duff, as Cameron's mother Carlotta, who comes to love boxing even as she fears for her son's safety. Her monologues contain the funniest lines in the play, and Duff easily gets the laughs. The actress is equally adept at conveying the dramatic heft of the work, particularly in her closing speech.

While the production is consistently captivating, not everything works. In particular, Dina's character arc doesn't make much sense. She starts out as a strong-willed woman who wants to train with the boys. But then she inexplicably morphs into a bikini-clad ring girl, carrying the cards that display the number of the upcoming boxing round. A monologue Dina delivers to mark this transition seems woefully inadequate to actually explain it.

Designer Laura Hopkins has fashioned a set reminiscent of a boxing ring, but which includes traps for objects such as a washing machine or refrigerator to be elevated onto the stage. The design also features a revolve at the center, as well as a mechanism to make the entire stage turn, so that the audience (seated on three sides) can get different views of the stage picture at key moments. A bank of video monitors at the back wall of the set provides a canvas for video designer Ian William Galloway to project a number of striking images, from close-ups of a boxing match to medical X-rays showing damaged bones.

While Beautiful Burnout tells an ultimately touching story, the plot oftentimes takes a backseat to the energetic and precisely choreographed movement sequences. These are set to the techno beat of the band Underworld, whose pulsating music is well used here. A highlight is the show's title song, "Beautiful Burnout," from Underworld's 2007 album Oblivion with Bells. It's played during the climactic boxing match near the end of the production, and features softly sung vocals that have a raw, aching quality that is appropriately haunting.