Tom Wainwright is a young, prolific and highly acclaimed Bristol-based writer and performer who is undoubtedly going places. During the summer his solo show, Pedestrian, was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe and now his debut drama, Muscle, a play about masculinity, obsession and adultery, returns to the Bristol Old Vic having been developed and first performed here over two years ago.
Wainwright has garnered himself a reputation as a real architect of dark comedy and true to form, Muscle is explicitly rude, violent and outrageous whilst managing to be wickedly funny, perceptive and intelligent. The action follows three men sharing an afternoon in the testosterone-fuelled confines of a sweaty gym, each dealing with issues much weightier than the irons they’re pumping.
There’s Steve, whose concerned how everyday he’s getting fatter, older and lazier, Steve’s mate Terry, a slim, lonely gay man searching for companionship, and Dan, a butch, toned, handsome Adonis who would dearly love to have sex with himself but is currently settling for Steve’s wife.
The dialogue is bursting with rich expletives and offensive one-liners but behind its wank gags, homo-phobic/-erotic banter and blokey bravado is a really fizzing script built around a curious relationship triangle with constantly shifting dynamics and a clever use of flashbacks and inner-monologues to give edge and intrigue. There are also several dramatic twists and reveals that keep you on your toes and which could have felt a bit farfetched if they weren’t handled so well by the director and our three wonderfully entertaining performers.
Each of the actors works well to flesh out roles that could easily have fallen into the realms of cheap caricature and it made their emotional journeys very real. Paul Mundell shone as Terry, getting progressively more animated and camp as tempers flared and façades fell away with his gesticulations, flounderings and well timed pauses provoking several belly-laughs from the audience. Stewart Wright too was excellent as Dan, striding onto the stage early on with all the sturdy confidence and sex-appeal of Mr. Universe but by the end getting reduced to an insecure thug pleading for the others’ attention.
Sion Pritchard as Steve was also entertaining and although he handled the emotional swings in the final scenes very well, I have to say I found his characterisation came with so many quirks, vices and twitches that the potentially loveable Scouser became quite irritating to watch. His constant fidgeting, comedy voices and outbursts of crudity, violence and self-pity served to alienate him until it was hard to feel sorry for his eventual situation at all. Steve’s personification also made it very difficult to really understand his friendship with Terry and this murky relationship led to an awkward, fractured and strangely frantic opening fifteen minutes of the play.
This slightly wobbly start aside, Muscle is a very engaging, playful and side-splittingly funny journey around the male psyche, recommended to anyone with a taste for the darkly comic.