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Beautiful Burnout - Charlie Pemberton

The play ‘Beautiful Burnout’ marked the first co-production between award-winning theatre companies Frantic Assembly and the National Theatre of Scotland. This astounding and revealing play was written by Bryony Lavery, and directed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett.   The play gives you a very detailed incite into the lives and the world of the ‘blood sport’ of boxing. It truly offers a glimpse into this exceptionally rapid and action packed world of boxing. It makes you understand the thrill and the sweat, the pain and the power of such an underestimated and unfamiliar sport. ‘Beautiful Burnout’ challenges our preconceptions about the most controversial sport of our time. 

This drama play with comedic elements is portrayed in a realistic style, as we see and experience all of the events and steps in becoming a pro boxer like the protagonist Cameron Burns. It also follows a reasonably straight forward and easy to follow narrative. Though there is stylistic and non-realistic movement used by some of the actors, such as the scenes with the boxing referees as they leap and duck about as if being part of an imaginary fight. The main idea behind the play is to really engage with the audience and portray to them the ‘real and gritty’ side of the disputed sport of boxing.

We stepped into the ABC studios with fast electronic music pumping throughout the space as we found our seats. This music gave a real plausible sense that we were in a real boxing arena and we were about to see an actual boxing match. The fast paced/high energy music got your blood pumping even more as it kept increasing in volume until the start of the show. The play follows the realistic and interesting career trajectory of five young Glasgow boxers as they struggle to become professionals and escape from their boring old working-class lives.  In particular it displays Cameron Burns on his journey to get into the big time.  The play displays his growth as a boxer and how he gradually becomes as good, if not better, than the other boxers in Bobby Burgess’s gym. 

The play builds to a definite climax with Cameron boxing in a pro match against Ajay, a former member of Burgess’s gym. It ends with the most memorable scene of the whole play, which involves Cameron suffering a paralysing injury, which ends his boxing career. The play leaves us feeling distraught over Cameron’s injury, which ended his career so abruptly, and at such a young age. The characterisation of all characters in the play was very realistic, especially the character of Cameron who is new to the sport and, from his performance, we can see that he is truly intrigued in boxing and determined to do well. 

All actors should be commended on their physicality and energy levels throughout the play as they all enthusiastically participated in the intense training sessions that took place in the play. All these boxing actors had to do real life boxing classes and gruelling fitness programmes in preparation for the parts they had to play.  You literally see the set dripping down their bodies in the vigorous choreographed workout/dance sessions. The scene in which Cameron sustains his injury is incredible as the actor maintains his focus the entire scene as he slowly falls into this paralysis type injury. It was a very emotional scene and he performed it with great confidence and emotion. There were a lot of pauses that he had to display in his characters and these really added to particular scenes, such as this last climatic one. As part of the audience sincerely thought that this was a very plausible and realistic scene. The tone of the play was effectively demonstrated through the actor’s voices. Though the mother’s voice was always quite anxious and distressed as she didn’t want to lose her son to the world boxing, and when he sustains his injury instead of being distraught she is very particularly happy as she has her boy back. 

The theatre was set up in an area type audience, with the members of the audience facing into the centre ‘boxing ring’, which was on show the whole night. This set up of the theatre, made the entire play more naturalistic and gave it a real pumped up mood as we thought we were in a real boxing arena.  The use of the boxing ring in the centre of the stage for the whole play made it extremely realistic, as even when boxers are at home or out about in the world they are always living and dreaming boxing.  Also for moments at Cameron’s home, when Cameron’s mother is speaking, objects such as a fridge and washing machine rose up from the boxing ring, indicating this change of scene. There were also moments where the inner circle of the boxing ring rotated when there were pauses in the fights, and the boxer who had been hit recovers and thinks about his next move and then the scene unfreezes again. This was a very interesting technique and worked well in the choreographed boxing scenes.  Then eventually the whole stage rotates when Cameron sustains his injury showing that his whole world had just been flipped upside down, and that his boxing career was over. 

The costuming is very appropriate for the class and age of all the characters on stage. When they are not boxing they are wearing just some casual jeans and a zip up hoody or sweater, but when they are boxing/training they wear shorts and a singlet or t-shirt.  The costuming itself enhances the characterisation of certain characters, such as Dina when she becomes the ring girl and is forced to dress up in promiscuous clothing in the last boxing scene. The costumes were also very appropriate for the time period, which added to the authenticity of the play. The props again were very appropriate to the setting and also each scene. One scene where Cameron is carrying a bag of groceries, the bag carrying the food is from an actual supermarket in Scotland filled with the types of food you would expect a working class lad such as Cameron to buy. 

The lighting and music contribute significantly to the overall performance as it creates mood and focus in very distinct scenes. For example in the training/dance scenes there is electronic music pumping while the lights are flashing warm colours across the actors as they perform the scene. The lighting is also used well in the last boxing match as it is accurate to what the lighting of a real boxing match would be like, again creating an intense mood in the audience.  The screens on the backdrop of the set also were used very well. For example because boxers operate in 3 minutes bursts, the first monologue from Cameron’s mum lasts 3 minutes exactly, and we see this from the 3 minutes being counted down on these screens. These screens also act as a river/lake at one stage, and we see the ripples flowing throughout the screens and also hear the sound of rocks splashing in the water as Cameron throws these imaginary rocks into it. One very special moment with the use of these screens, was when Cameron takes the fatal blow that leads to his serious injury the screens flash with real boxing moments from his life, signifying the “life flashing before your eyes”.  These scenes had obviously been pre-recorded but they were moments that had occurred in the play and that the audience recognised. 

Overall I believed that ‘Beautiful Burnout’ was a marvellous piece of theatre, which manipulated production design elements, technical elements and staging extremely well to produce a very revealing and emotional play. The character of Cameron Burns was acted out superbly, and the growth of the character is evident throughout the play.  My views on the sport of boxing and the athletes that partake on it were significantly changed after watching ‘Beautiful Burnout’, as I gained a detailed incite into the ludicrous world of the sport. I believe that the director succeed in having this affect on the whole audience, as it was a relatively easy play to follow (at times the information might have been portrayed too obviously), but ‘Beautiful Burnout’ also had deep meanings throughout it, that I am sure will stick with me for years to come. 

5/5