Theatre review: A Gym Thing

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Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Will is going nowhere. He’s finished his studies and working as a decorator while he cares for his mother.

Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)

****

One day, just to get him off his backside, friend Ravi drags him to the local gym for a trial session. Will’s not done anything especially physical since the hated PE lessons at school, and he’s not keen.

But he surprises himself by enjoying a bit of physical exertion. Soon, he’s enjoying a lot of physical exertion, and the way his improving body makes him feel better about himself. He bumps into an old college mate, Bec, who notices him in a way she never did previously. They start dating, learning about one another, developing in-jokes over wine and ice cream. Will is healthier, and happier.

A couple of months down the line, though, and the balance of Will’s life has changed. He’s reorganising his job to allow more time at the gym, watching every little thing he eats, taking supplements and looking amazing. But, obsessed with his progress, he’s never happy and it’s hurting his relationships.

I don’t recall hearing the terms “bigorexia” or “Body Dysmorphic Disorder” during this play’s frenetic 60 minutes, but they’re not necessary – Will’s progressively less healthy attitude towards his body is there for all to see in Tom Vallen’s superb playing of his own script. Will’s journey from slacker to “gym bunny” to someone who badly needs help dealing with body image is convincing, almost hypnotic in its intensity. Making Vallen’s performance extra impressive is the fact that he rarely stops moving – doing press-ups, seated dips, burpees ... this man’s physique is not faked.

The play wouldn’t work without co-stars Bethan James and Tarrick Benham, their rounded portrayals of Bec and Ravi grounding the action. Movement director Jess Tucker Boyd deserves a big nod for her work with the actors, while director Philip Scott-Wallace knits everything together into a tight, very watchable drama. The only thing I’m not convinced by is the occasional use of strobe lighting; even setting aside the risk of migraine, it’s flash rather than substance.

It’s a minor quibble about a play which should be required watching for anyone who finds themselves getting obsessive about self-improvement. A Gym Thing never hammers its message home, instead making its points with a brutal elegance.

Until 28 August. Today 12:30pm.