A Gym Thing by Tom Vallen
The Pleasance (Short walk from Caledonian Road tube station) To 13th May
1 hour, no interval
Review Info: Veronica Stein, 3rd May, 2018.
Brought me out in a sweat
“Saturday is the day of rest…not in this church!” bellows Will, dripping sweat, preparing to to hit the floor for what might be his millionth rep during A Gym Thing at the Pleasance Theatre. Rest, as suspected, is not to be found in this dynamic hour-long piece, and churchlike is an apt description. Tom Vallen’s debut, in which he also stars, takes us through Will’s first day at his local gym though his downward spiral to obsession and addiction that is growing evermore present and dangerous.
Sponsored by the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation, A Gym Thing is fast-paced, effective, and masterful in many places. As Will grapples with maintaining his friendships and relationship with Rebecca (played by the authentic and warm Jennifer Brooke) while spending an unhealthy amount of time in pursuit of, well, health, his deteriorating mental state as juxtaposed against his physical aptitude provide for a gripping story. After all, the best tragic heroes are the ones that get taken down by their own expectations. Supposedly driven by Rebecca’s admiration of Brad Pitt’s physique in Fight Club, it’s clear that Will is grappling with darker demons. His best mate, Jay (the charming and comically gifted Gabriel Akuwdikwe), brought Will to the gym to keep him from atrophying at home. What A Gym Thing brilliantly exposes, however, is that the gym for Will- as it is for many- is like any other addiction: an escape that can instead become a tunnel to myopia. In Will’s case, the tunnel leads to a mirror.
Never cut enough, never consuming enough supplements, Will’s cheeky personality at the start gives way to an altogether different, more severe and less giving man. As his life outside of his ‘church’ starts to crumble, the play never feels obvious, and even moments of exposition are layered thoughtfully throughout to make them as involved as possible. Overall the writing is tight, dry, and fluid, bouncing between monologues and more traditional scenes with relative ease. The introductory device, wherein Will is coaching the audience through a training session, is seldom used and isn’t necessary- his exercising throughout needs no explanation and works as action inseparable from the character.
Some jokes don’t quite land, but no matter, for many do- and Tom Vallen’s utter sincerity more than makes up for it. Besides his impressive stamina (the sheer number of exertions is staggering- and his projection doesn’t falter!), his transformation from couch potato to meathead is artfully portrayed. From sweet and charming to a man disturbed, Vallen rides an emotional roller coaster throughout, with increasing physical fatigue, continually delivering thought-provoking moments, through both his performance and his script. A gym thing really is a human thing, Vallen seems to say…and as this reviewer is left with many thoughts one seems to pop up more often than the rest in wake of the piece: ‘I need to get back to the gym’. And therein is the need for A Gym Thing to be seen.
Will Shaw: Tom Vallen
Jay/Damon Collins: Gabriel Akuwudike
Rebecca Harrison: Jennifer Brooke
Director: Philip Scott-Wallace
Sound Designer: Adam Welsh
Lighting Designer: Saulius Valiunas