Festival review: Strong Arm; Underbelly Cowgate

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BIGOREXIA. The Adonis Complex. Reverse anorexia nervosa.

Muscle dysmorphia is known by many names. A disorder in which the sufferer becomes obsessed with their image, imagining they are too skinny or too slight in stature, it has blighted the life of many a young man, the Mr Universe ‘perfection’ they seek, often robbing them of their health through the use of supplements and steroids.

Roland Poland is one such young man. The archetypal fat lad, he was bullied at school. He comforted himself with food. At 20 stone, and with a 42-inch waist, he wasn’t easy to miss. Caught in a vicious circle, his childhood was a lonely one.

That all changed the day he discovered a rundown gym, in which he was inspired by a poster of 
Arnold Schwarzenegger. Roland Poland would be like Arnie. He would become Mr Britain.

Against a backdrop of four distorted mirrors, Finlay Robertson is Roland Poland. He tells his story in the first person – it’s intimate, personal and perhaps that shouldn’t be too surprising as Strong Arm was penned by its star.

Comfortable in the role and immensely watchable as he flips between the 
roly-poly youngster and his more muscular self, Robertson inhabits each situation his character finds himself in with a candid delivery and raw vulnerability.

We meet school bully Ricky Pocock. Years after their time learning together he is oblivious to the damage his tormenting caused.

We meet Cassie, Pocock’s ex and the girl of Poland’s dreams. They date.

We also discover a man so driven by his desperate need to escape the fat lad he once was that any 
understanding of who he is has left him too.

It’s an honest performance of a script that boasts much promise. As Poland’s fixation with his body increases, so the action looks for inspiration to Schwarzenegger’s infamous quote from the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron, in which he compared ‘the greatest feeling you can get in a gym 
. . . The Pump’ to being as satisfying as an orgasm, for its inspiration.

Graphic and blunt, it highlights the addictive nature of the condition, but also pushes the tale into darker, more worrying territory.

Winner of the Old Vic New Voices Edinburgh Award, Strong Arm is not always an easy watch and does have its clumsier moments – a bizarre romp through the periodic table is incongruous.

Nevertheless, it is still well worth a look, if just for Robertson’s engaging and sympathetic performance.

Rating: * * * *

• Until August 26

LIAM RUDDEN