A ‘Bigorexia’ origin story is told on stage at the Pleasance Theatre this May. Showing how a simple free trial pass for a gym can act as something of a gateway drug, A Gym Thing tells the story of Will Shaw, written and performed by Tom Vallen. Directed by Philip Scott-Wallace, the play raises awareness about this unsuspecting condition for the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation. Having premiered at the Edinburgh Festival last summer, Vallen brings the play to London with Gabriel Akuwudike and Jennifer Brooke in the supporting roles.
The play is set around an entire work out performed by Vallen. It’s a sweaty affair as the work out is interrupted by flashbacks that revisit how Will’s friend Jay (Akuwudike) gets him off of the sofa and into the gym where he quickly becomes a self-proclaimed “vest wanker”. The flashbacks are accompanied by effective transitions in lighting and sound by Saulius Valiunas and Adam Welsh, as well as choreographed movements around the three-sided stage. The stage itself is bare except for two lockers and a bench, each of which serves its purpose in and out of the gym scenes. The bench in particular changes from a gym bench to a sofa, from a dining table to a weightlifting bar that risks flying directly at the audience.
The rise and fall of Gym-Will is marked by his romantic relationship with Rebecca (Brooke). When she makes a quip about fancying Brad Pitt in Fight Club, Will takes it as a request and from then on his rapid descent into obsessive exercising and regimented dieting is supposedly done for her sake. “It’s all for you”, he tells her again and again as he ignores the red flags in their relationship and in his own relationship with his body and reflection. Arguably, Vallen introduces his nervous and manic characteristics too early, interrupting Will’s transformation. Meanwhile Akuwudike and Brooke’s performances offer much more to the play than you might expect. The play is funny thanks to Akuwudike’s ironic lines and cheeky delivery, but becomes serious following an impassioned monologue by Brooke.
Vallen’s astute writing and brilliant timing take the audience from laughing with Will to laughing at him, before becoming deeply worried by him. It’s a brutally real representation of the little understood Muscle Dysmorphic Condition and cleverly explores how it can disrupt work, personal relationships, mental health, physical health, sex and anger. Revealing how a healthy habit can become a destructive force, A Gym Thing will put you through your paces.
A Gym Thing is playing at the Pleasance Theatre until 13 May 2018
Photo: Boris Mitkov