Beautiful Burnout – Pleasance – 4 stars
Flesh and Blood and Fish and Fowl – Traverse@St Stephens – 4 stars
En Route – Traverse off-site – 4 stars
Fairtrade – Pleasance – 3 stars
There’s an undeniable thrill of being sat ringside at any contact sport that no theatre first night will ever match. Frantic Assembly directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett have recognised this in the breathlessly choreographed endurance test for actors that is Beautiful Burnout, their Bryony Lavery scripted co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland.
In a series of verbal jabs played out in a rope-less boxing ring, the play charts the travails of a group of would-be boxers in Bobby Burgess’ back-street gym, where Ryan Fletcher’s rookie Cameron Burns aspires to be a contender. As he goes through his paces with Taqi Nazeer’s flashy Ajay, Henry Pettigrew’s bright spark Ainsley and Vicki Manderson’s terrier-like Dina, the sweat and blood of hard-fought discipline and boot-room camaraderie sees each character ricochet off each other like uppercuts.
As infectiously high-octane as this is, as with any dramatic interpretation of sport (or that other great working-class escape route, music, as well, for that matter) what follows is also unavoidably obvious and deeply sentimental. This is inherent everywhere from the pumping Underworld sound-tracked dance routines to the inevitable fallout in the trainer-protégé relationship to the slow-motion climax of the big fight.
To be fair, Hoggett, Graham and Lavery aren’t pretending to do anything more than this, even as the feminist thrust of Lavery’s text pits Lorraine McIntosh’s petrified mother and Manderson’s would-be boxer turned hot-pant wearing ring girl into the thick of the action. While their presence staves off any accusations of homo-eroticisation, it too has progressed little since Claire Luckham’s 1970s female wrestling allegory, Trafford Tanzi.
At the end, however, Frantic Assembly have created an impressively dynamic affair, with a crackingly well-drilled set of performances that pull no punches.
Neither, for that matter, does Flesh and Blood and Fish and Fowl, one of several Traverse off-site works that moves into more appropriately rough spaces. Here New York based theatre makers Geoff Sobelle and Charlotte Ford transform the interior of St Stephens Church into a dilapidated office where Jerry and Rhoda quietly stay busy doing nothing, even though the world outside might have ended.
Knee-deep in detritus and with a litany of office irritants to torment them, the pair find themselves even more hemmed in by an increasingly large series of furry creatures. Giving way to their own animal mentality, Jerry and Rhoda find themselves on the shambolically absurdist road to Eden via a painfully funny series of physical set-pieces that shows off who really is the deadliest species. Like Franz Kafka by way of Charlie Chaplin or Mad Men after the apocalypse, this is one really wild show that bites
There’s been a vogue in recent years for sound walks, in which cities are reimagined in ways designed to accentuate the everyday experience. In En Route, the Melbourne based one step at a time like this company take the idea of creating a love song to an urban environment and run, but mainly walk with it.
With an ipod strapped to your wrist and a pair of headphones round your neck, you’re sent off via a series of text messages to explore some of the back alleys of Edinburgh’s city centre. The accompanying soundtrack adds a sense of psychogeographic drama to proceedings, especially as its local sources, taken primarily from Edinburgh’s twinkly Alextronic label, but also featuring cuts from The Gothenburg Address and Eagleowl, lend a glimmer of familiarity to proceedings.
The journey moves through the Grassmarket onto Princes Street and beyond, and, able to drift at your own pace, is a wonderfully atmospheric sojourn that gently but firmly forces you to confront and break through one’s own emotional shield as you create your own drama. Personal unscripted favourites included a child in full camouflage gear and toy machine gun in John Lewis and at least two streets never visited before.
Celebrity actors attaching their names to shows will always guarantee an audience, if not necessarily provide a barometer of quality. As executive producer of Fairtrade, Shelley Davenport, Anna Holbek and Kate Ferguson’s new play look at the horrors of sex trafficking, Emma Thompson’s presence perhaps draws too much attention away from the play’s worth.
Telling the parallel stories of east European Elena and African Samai, Fairtrade draws from real life experiences to lay bare a sadly familiar tale of abuse and brutality. Despite the odd stylistic lurch into a symbolic rendering of Cinderella, Lotte Wakeham’s production for the Shatterbox company pretty much does what it says on the tin. While fine in itself, it isn’t saying anything that hasn’t already been highlighted in equally worthy TV documentaries on the subject. If it is to have any real power, it needs to go a lot further than this.
The Herald, August 10th 2010