INTERVIEW: Tom Vallen on A Gym Thing

A Gym Thing, a play that profiles Body Dysmorphic Disorder, (BDD) and was a hit at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe is currently playing at London’s Pleasance Theatre. Written by and starring, Tom Vallen, A Gym Thing is a complex and powerful love story set within a 60-minute physical workout.  

Will, played by Vallen, is a regular at his local gym and is driven by a daily quest for perfection.  Like countless men and women, he becomes addicted to both working out and a gym lifestyle. Through the character of Will, Vallen examines what makes gym addicts push their bodies to the limit dangering not only themselves but also their personal relationships.

Performed by a cast of three, Vallen is joined in A Gym Thing by new cast members, Jennifer Brooke and Gabriel Akuwudike. Brooke has appeared in Hollyoaks and Akuwudike in Channel 4’s, The Bisexual and BBC 1’s, No One Is An Island. As an actor, Vallen’s credits include Bash by Neil LaBute at the Old Red Lion and Trafalgar Studios and Casualty and Episodes for the BBC.

A little-known condition, BDD has been known to decimate and wreck lives; its sufferers can develop serious mental problems and in extreme cases commit suicide. The numbers of suicides committed by BDD sufferers are amongst the highest of all mental disorders.  A Gym Thing places BDD firmly under the spotlight and in this interview, Tom Vallen explains what inspired to him to write the play and what he hopes audiences will learn from watching it.

A Gym Thing is your first play. What made you want to write a play about Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)? 

I have always been a keen gym goer and was particularly excited by the idea of setting the entry narrative of a show within a 60-minute workout. It was only upon research around the topic of gym addiction that I learnt about this disabling disorder. 

Have you or anyone you know experienced BDD?

As I developed the script I realised that, like my lead character Will, I too had many of the traits associated with someone with BDD, which unknowingly was negatively impacting my life. And with 1 in 10 bodybuilding gym users having Bigorexia you don’t have to look far around the gym to spot known and unknown sufferers. 

The play was a great success in Edinburgh and was many people’s top pick of the Fringe. How do you think it will be received in London?

With a brand new sound and lighting design, we expect this to be once again an electrifying hour for the audience. Being health conscious seems to be part of London’s DNA so the play will hopefully resonate with many.

As well as having written A Gym Thing you are also appearing in it. How easy is it to combine the roles of actor and writer?

I am aware there can be many pitfalls to performing your own material, but fortunately, I’m able to switch off in the rehearsal room and hand the baton to my director Philip Scott-Wallace whom I fully trust with the piece.

New cast members, Jennifer Brooke and Gabriel Akuwudike are joining you for the run at the Pleasance. What have they brought new to the rehearsal process?

Jennifer and Gabriel have been wonderful to have in the rehearsal room, their contagious energy and inventive ideas have shone a new light on the characters for us all.

The play is set within a 60-minute workout how are you and the cast preparing for this? 

I’ve kept up a base level of fitness since announcing the London transfer last year and have since increased the intensity of my training in the past three weeks to give me the stamina for such a strenuous role. As for Gabriel and Jennifer, their roles are very dynamic and movement based so we’ve given them time to develop a movement language for the piece in rehearsals.

What do you hope that people watching the play will take away from it? 

Gym goer or not we hope to captivate and stimulate the audience through the 60-minute workout. Taking them on a sweaty fast-paced journey of what exercise means to us all, hopefully igniting self-reflection or triggering awareness of people around them who might be suffering. Above all, we hope we’re furthering the conversation around this underrepresented disabling mental health disorder. 

You have produced A Gym Thing with director, Philip Scott-Wallace. Do you have plans to collaborate on any other projects? 

Absolutely, our partnership has proven to be a very enjoyable and successful one; complementing each other’s strength. We already have ideas for other projects and a future life for A Gym Thing.

And finally what advice would you give to any aspiring actor/writers keen to see their work produced on the fringe?

Don’t be afraid to seek advice from more experienced companies, you can save a lot of time and money this way. Above all, write something you truly believe in and don’t look too much at the outcome, focus on what you can control and don’t waste time on what you can’t.

A Gym Thing is at the Pleasance Theatre, London until Sunday 13 May

Richard Hall | Image: Sally Jubb Photography

The Reviews Hub - Features

Our Features team is under the editorship of Nicole Craft. The team is responsible for sourcing interviews, articles, competitions from across the country. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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