In the HBO series “The Wire,” David Simon featured a storyline that vividly depicted the boxing ring as an attractive escape route from Baltimore’s street crime and drug addiction. That familiar boxing theme is depicted in Bryony Lavery’s “Beautiful Burnout,” as a similar class of young people is drawn to the Scottish gym and for similar reasons. But in this case, the focus is less on social background than on the muscular choreography of the workout and the violent poetry of the ring. It’s an approach that gives the show a limited narrative range but a captivating physical grace.
Working with the National Theater of Scotland, co-helmers Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett are best known for their physically driven productions with the London-based Frantic Assembly. Hoggett also won an Olivier award for his choreography in the internationally acclaimed “Black Watch” (returning to Washington, Carolina, Texas and Chicago in 2011), and he specializes in capturing the ferocious beauty of macho movement. The images in “Beautiful Burnout” are as tough, punishing and brutal as you would expect from such an uncompromising sport, yet they also have an aesthetically pleasing shape, precision and coordination.
In this contrast lies the play’s chief tension. Like Lorraine M. McIntosh’s Carlotta, the mother of Ryan Fletcher’s wannabe boxer Cameron, we can see the sport as a violent and dangerous pursuit. But like Cameron himself, as he joins the other similarly obsessed young fighters for their regular training sessions, we can also enjoy it as a rigorous discipline that is almost an art. Even Carlotta, the one character not bitten by the boxing bug, finds herself entranced by the balletic beauty of the perfect right hook.
There is also a poetic quality in Lavery’s writing as she tells the story of four rookie fighters: Dina (Vicki Manderson), taking out her private anger on the punching bag; Ajay (Taqi Nazeer), going it alone after refusing to take instruction; Ainsley (Henry Pettigrew), climbing the ranks through sheer will power; and Cameron, whose rise to professional status is both his success and his downfall.
In the absence of much analysis about the risks of the sport, the script is left to make a rather obvious point about the dangers of boxing. There is, however, a great strength in the production’s choreography and the rigor of its hard-working cast. “Beautiful Burnout” heads to London after its preem on the Edinburgh Fringe.