Beautiful Burnout, Artsdepot

Originally written for Exeunt.

Three minutes. No more, no less. That’s the precise length of a round in professional boxing, a unit of time into which matches, training and Bryony Lavery’s punchy scenes are divided. It’s just enough time to dodge, feint and land the knockout blow. Shifting constantly from foot to foot, Lavery’s play explores the individual impact of a sport dominated by the swinging of the fist and the flash of the camera, an inherently performative spectacle that she reveals to be as much about control and discipline as it is about unbridled aggression.

This study of boxing takes as it object a small gym in Glasgow, where five would-be fighters, each with their own reasons to hit out, see the sport as a way out of the city and circumstances of their birth. Backed by a flickering bank of screens, these hungry, sparring youngsters are continually haunted by the future spectre of fame, their face on a television and their fists clenched around wads of cash. Laura Hopkins’ design places the performers on a raised platform that immediately recalls the boxing ring and that simultaneously holds them up for inspection, lifting them from the ground but not quite raising them up to the bright lights.

For a sport that bears striking if unlikely resemblances to dance – the uniting and separation of bodies, the swift lightness on the feet – Frantic Assembly’s treatment is a fitting and energetic one. Though sometimes lacking in verbal eloquence, through the language of movement the finely tuned bodies of the characters speak, a physical form of communication that is as central to the piece as the words of Lavery’s script. It is by way of this speech that these individuals come to define themselves; as the observing mother of one of the young boxers remarks, “it’s like there’s a smile in their bodies”. This physical language also carries into the use of Underworld’s music, a pulsing soundtrack that echoes both pounding heartbeat and the pounding ofpunches.

Rapid and pounding too is Lavery’s structure of short scenes and monologues, shifting restlessly from one to the next. While this approach keeps the audience on their toes as much as the tireless performers, the swift onwards movement can prevent the punches from being felt before the bell rings in the next round. The blows land, but they don’t always bruise. Any shortfall in the depth of the scenes, however, is compensated for with the sheer force of the performance, more than conjuring the sweat and determination of the ring.

Beneath this thrilling, muscular production there is a barely visible glint of rage at the injustice of a society in which one’s fists might be the only passport out of a dead end life – a rage smothered, like that of the protagonists, in precision and control. Despite the controversy that surrounds professional boxing, Beautiful Burnout embraces both its danger and its ecstasy, acknowledging how fighting can be an escape and a salvation as much as it has the power to destruct. Boxing is a dangerous sport, but so is life.

Lovesong, Lyric Hammersmith

The past may be a foreign country, but we sure like travelling there. In the latest production from Frantic Assembly, past and present share the stage in a tender tearjerker about love, time and memory.

The story itself is seductively simple. An old married couple, Billy and Maggie, are nearing the end of their time together as Maggie’s health steadily deteriorates. Meanwhile they are consumed by the shadows of their younger selves that dance – quite literally – through their home. Through these memories, we are introduced to the couple at the beginning of their marriage, following them from honeymoon glow to the appearance of the first cracks in their relationship. We learn that they have emigrated together to the States, where Billy sets up a dentistry practice and they wait for children that stubbornly refuse to come.

By intertwining the lives of this couple at different ages, playwright Abi Morgan (the prolific writer-of-the moment behind The Hour and The Iron Lady among others) is able to give us a fairly comprehensive picture of their marriage. This is no idyllic portrait of perfect love; we see Billy and Maggie bicker and fight, we experience their frustration at their childlessness and witness them both momentarily waver when faced with the temptation of adultery. But we also see how, in old age, they have come to rely on one another in a marriage that has ultimately survived through the years.

Morgan’s script is brought beautifully and captivatingly to the stage by Frantic Assembly, who unite evocative movement with stunning sound and design. Under the direction of Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, Billy and Maggie’s past and present selves collide, embrace, dance and separate, all to Carolyn Downing’s moving soundtrack. In one standout moment, the present-day Maggie, heartbreakingly played by Siân Phillips, tries on a treasured pair of shoes from her youth and stumbles through the house. The emotional effect is little short of devastating.

There is no doubt about it, this is meant to make us cry. Frantic Assembly’s production, helped along by an outstanding cast, is unapologetically manipulative, working on our collective tear-ducts with nimble, tender touches until the audience is reduced to a symphony of sniffles. Morgan has cannily tapped into fears that assail us all; we weep not just for Billy and Maggie, but for the inevitability of our own demise and that of our loved ones. Yet, for all that it tugs delicately on the emotions, I can’t help but wish that Lovesong was a little less insistent on leaving its spectators damp-faced.

When not pulling mercilessly at the heartstrings, Lovesong raises some fascinating questions. Far from being merely a eulogy on a love story that is at its imminent end, Morgan’s play prods at some of the deeper concerns that ripple through our existence. How, for instance, do we create our own legacy? As Billy contemplates the end, the optimism of his youth all faded, the only marker of his life seems likely to be his perfectly maintained set of gnashers. The young Maggie’s imagination, meanwhile, is captured by the cave drawings left behind by early humans – drawings that she and Billy later run their hands over together, imprinting these pre-historic images with the story of their own love.

But by far the most intriguing theme to thread through Billy and Maggie’s story is that of time and its linearity or otherwise. The intersection of past and present, while primarily redolent of the potency of memory, asks inherent questions about our conception of time, questions that arise again when Billy introduces different theories of time. Are our lives really lived along a straight line, or is time far more complex than we could imagine? These are ideas that, mirroring Graham and Hoggett’s haunting choreography, are repeatedly caressed and skimmed over, but that this production ultimately loses grasp of.

There is no shame in a piece of theatre about love and death – two of life’s few universal certainties – and especially a piece of theatre that handles these themes as deftly as Lovesong does. Tears, however, have an unfortunate tendency to blur the vision, obscuring the lighter nuances of what Morgan is saying. Exquisitely moving though it may be, in the wake of this strong tide of emotion emerges a yearning for something slightly more clear-sighted.

Lovesong runs at Lyric Hammersmith until 4 February.

Image: Johan Persson