We all want to look good, don’t we? Everybody likes to feel attractive. But what if we don’t? What if we see an undersized, unsatisfactory version of our ideal self every time we look in the mirror? What then?
An arresting portrait of physical perfectionism
Christopher Wollaton tackles this issue head-on in his short one-man play, Brawn. Ryan, a formerly tall and skinny school kid who was once called a “lanky geek”, is now an exercise addict hell-bent on bulking up. He shuts himself away in his father’s garage, now converted into a gym, and pumps iron as if his life depended on it – and maybe it does. He needs to be alone to stay focussed on his training; public gyms are too distracting (and he can always unfavourably compare himself with the other patrons there). But however much he trains, the image in the mirror never quite measures up to the expectation. As with all fantasies, the closer he gets to his goal, the more it recedes from his grasp. He will only ever be 80% of the way to where he wants to be – never quite good enough to win the girl of his dreams.
Wollaton gives a finely controlled performance here. His Ryan is believable, understated and engaging, by turns offering his back-story in almost conspiratorial tones, then strutting around the stage like a man possessed and holding forth in declamatory fashion on the ins and outs of body culture. His success in this is due as much to his writing as to his performance. Wollaton handles the escalation from ‘interest’ in weights to ‘obsession’ with physique particularly well, and pushes real weights as he does so.
Brawn offers us an arresting portrait of physical perfectionism sparked by unrealistic representations of the male body in advertising and popular culture, and demonstrates the damage this can do. Increasingly, more and more men are falling prey to this pernicious form of mental illness. However, the shortness of the play (a scant 30 minutes) means that the issue is not properly explored. Here we have an interesting snapshot rather than a more developed idea. And while the last six minutes of the play winds up very well indeed, with judicious use of demented sound-effects and an atmospheric lighting change, the effect was – for this reviewer – undercut by some apparently unmotivated lighting changes earlier on which almost stole the thunder from the finale.
I can't help thinking that an even better, longer play is itching to emerge from this. But in any case, Brawn is a great little play with a timely message, and deserves an audience.