Pros: An important subject performed with flawless physicality and some well timed comedy.
Cons: There was little meat or mind beyond the physicality, and stock support characters made for a fairly one-dimensional perspective.
A Gym Thing draws attention to the largely unspoken topic of bigorexia, a form of Body Dismorphia Disorder. Sufferers build their body in the hope of receiving external recognition; obsessing and over-working to gain status and an ever unattainable level of confidence. No matter how big it grows or defined it becomes, the body remains a shell for the suffering psyche. It is the cover of the book, it is all of the talk and none of the action. This is mirrored in the narrative of the play: there is a lot of brawn but not quite so much psychology.
That is both the blessing and the curse of Vallen’s text and Philip Scott-Wallace’s direction. With that brawn comes urgent pulses of energy, a full hour long workout that builds the tension as much as it does the muscle. The pace is at full force as we move from gym to date, back to gym and onto party, without a pause to wipe the sweat. Through this back and forth our hearts beat to the knowledge that something or someone is going to break.
When breaking point is reached it’s achieved almost entirely through action. We watch Vallen’s character Will drive himself to destruction from his beginning as a gamer, still living with his Mum. The gym improves his confidence and enables him to fall in love, but eventually the obsession with body image engulfs him completely. We the audience are dragged along on Will’s journey, but we don’t necessarily feel it. There was a lack of vulnerability and insecurity.
There is something intriguing about Vallen’s choice to never have Will lose faith in what he is doing, in the gym, the eating habits or the drastic body changes. He stands by it throughout, no matter how detrimental and dangerous it becomes. That, in itself, communicates the state of his mental health. However, there seems to be a gap where there ought to be some representation of what is going on inside for him, the triggers, the mind-sets, the damage caused.
This gap could have been filled, more effectively, by the other characters – best friend Jay (played by Gabriel Akuwudike who also plays Damon) and girlfriend Becca (played by Jennifer Brooke). Akuwudike provides support and hits all the comedy nails right on the head, lifting the whole production into another dimension. His other role, Damon, is a romantic threat to Will but offers little more than set up. Brooke did what she could with a pretty empty character of ‘the girlfriend he’s already got so why is he still working out?’ The role is entirely supportive and magnifies the level of macho masculinity in a more negative light.
A Gym Thing is incredible in its physicality and pace. My heart rate increased dramatically and my physicality moved along with it, poised and edgy, ready for the drop. It tackles a much neglected subject matter, navigating it with equal measures of humour and drama. But, ultimately, it succeeds physically but not quite emotionally.
Author: Tom Vallen
Director: Philip Scott-Wallace
Producer: Working Cast and Small Things Theatre
Booking Until: 13 May 2018
Box Office: 020 7619 6868
Booking Link: https://www.pleasance.co.uk/event/gym-thing-1#overview