Review by Sam Waite
With the holidays behind us and resolutions made, gyms and fitness classes will be experiencing their usual influx of new members – “New Year, New Me” the driving mantra that many will abandon by the warmer months. But downstairs at the Arcola, Edinburgh Fringe hit Spin sets out to examine the true devotees, those for whom fitness and continuous self-improvement are at the centre of their lives, for better or for dangerously worse. Bringing on board Joe Ferris and Dr Kim Barker, as fitness coordinator and creative psychologist respectively, the intent from playwright Kate Sumpter and producers 3 Hearts Canvas is clearly to delve into something truly meaningful.
Kate Sumpter’s one-hander is a realtime hour spent with the nameless Instructor, who spends much of the runtime on a spin bike while speaking increasingly candidly to the audience. We're sitting in on her prep to audition for a job with a global fitness empire – she can't tell us the name, but it rhymes with Boul Bycle – and her anecdotes are getting a bit too personal for inspirational purposes. The Instructor isn't really sure who we are, or how she ended up in this studio, or why she vaguely remembers a dream about breath mints… but there's a spin bike and a sound system, so she keeps doing all she knows to do.
Sumpter’s script is a precarious balancing act – made funnier by how genuinely insightful and revealing it is, but also more moving and impactful for how well the jokes land. The Instructor’s decades of learned biases and longstanding issues with body image creep into every moment, allowing for a good mix of laugh out loud moments and lines you aren't sure if you can laugh too loudly at. Sumpter keeps the pace consistent, giving the show the feeling of being both longer (the emotional arc is so richly layered) and shorter (the blistering final moments seem to arrive so soon) than its 60 minutes.
The studio itself, brought to life by Lee Newby, serves its dual purpose well – this is both a realistic spin class, and a personal circle (literally) of Hell (maybe also literally, but that's for you to decide!) in which the character continues to torture herself, and relive her torture of others. A mirrored sign reading ‘SPIN’ hangs over the circular mat housing the bike, both a celebratory announcement and an increasingly sinister demand. The circle itself draws a clear separation - there's what she loves, and maybe has, to do, and there's the outside world she's lost so much of her connection to. Within this twisted studio, Robbie Butler’s lighting surrounds Sumpter with glaring lights and hanging strips of colour, adding to the initially inviting and later threateningly bright façade of the studio.
Butler’s lighting also works beautifully with Jamie Lu’s sound design, using moments of silence and darkness to let particularly bleak beats have their moment to settle under the audience's skin. Lu also manages to have the bass-y, workout-ready music seem to move from quiet background noise from the next room to overwhelming and overpowering as Sumpter’s passionate monologues build to increasingly frantic crescendos. A hilarious moment, of course accompanied by a horrific realisation, utilises sound and light to create what can only be called a “Hell Door” through which The Instructor tries and fails to allow air into the claustrophobic space.
Director Sarah Jane Schostack successfully translates the work to a new space, re-blocking key moments to make use of the Arcola’s brickwork and handily-placed door. Her guidance has Sumpter’s instructor visibly realise how claustrophobic her environment is, letting us in on her feelings (and situation) of entrapment without their needing to bog down the script with such allusions. Having worked together through the Edinburgh Fringe, Sumpter and Schostack obviously have a strong working relationship, letting her manoeuvring of her star go almost unnoticed in how light and natural her inputs appear to be.
Then, of course, there's the woman herself. Alongside writing a bold and affecting script, Kate Sumpter portrays The Instructor in bursts of ferocious energy and drops into genuine, palpable pain. As with her text, the strongest moments of Sumpter’s performance benefit from their sharp juxtapositions – her perkiness and leaning into the expected persona of a spin instructor lends the more deranged, hateful diatribes later on a frightening power. Likewise, just how desperate and pleading she becomes makes the jumps back into humour all the more welcome, and much funnier for the journey. A stellar actor with such clear understanding of her subjects and themes, Kate Sumpter is arguable giving one of London’s finest solo performances.
An emotional workout that's unafraid to explore just how harmful self-improvement can become without proper balance, Spin demonstrates why it was such a hit in Edinburgh, and why everyone involved has such an obvious passion for the project. A perfect marriage of performer and subject, this brief run is must-see theatre whose small scale does little to hide the enormity of its potential, or the enthusiasm of its opening night audience.
Spin plays at the Arcola Theatre until January 20th
For tickets and information visit https://www.arcolatheatre.com/whats-on/spin/
Photos by Lana Nemchenko