Every so often we come across a piece of theatre that forces the audience to concentrate. Never Swim Alone, directed in this version by Alexander Hick, does just this.
A swift and savage piece of satire by award-winning Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor, Never Swim Alone pits Bill (played by Azan Ahmed) and Frank (played by Jack Dillon) against one another in a series of thirteen rounds to determine who is Top-Dog. Once childhood friends it is initially unclear why these two are at odds. Outside of a slight height difference they seem the same person, dressed in an almost identical white shirt, black suit, black socks and tie combination and carrying leather briefcases. However, as the play gathers momentum and neither man can keep the upper hand for long their competitiveness becomes steadily more visceral and disturbing.
Bill and Frank’s relationship is an absolute triumph for Ahmed and Dillon who act with their emotions tightly in check, but constantly at risk of boiling over as their conflict intensifies. The way they often speak in unison, sometimes echoing each other and at other times sharing different stories, without dropping the pace is impressive to say the least. However, the use of repetition in combination with debate style dialogue often proves difficult to follow and the audience is left guessing why a point was awarded to one man rather than the other.
Each round is refereed by a mysterious girl (played by Tabatha Gregg-Allured) who blows a whistle ahead of each round and records the points of on a whiteboard which stands in prime position for the whole audience to bear witness. It is slowly revealed that the referee is not the impartial figure she seems at first. While she does prevent things from going too far at times, she knows how to prod and manipulate their emotions. Gregg-Allured’s performance with this is subtle, sometimes depending too heavily on her whistle to portray distaste in what the men are saying. Granted, she is little more than a prop in Frank and Bill’s play, but a little more confidence would have helped her cut a more striking performance. Where she lets her emotions out, however, they work perfectly in aiding the audience in dissecting the tangle of toxic masculinity.
For the first half of the play the referee seems in control of the two men’s competition, trapped as they are in physical manifestation of their past trauma. Bill and Frank are not granted full reign of the stage but are forced to execute their ritualistic “boxing-match” in a taped-off section of the performance space. Only once the fight becomes physical is the tape removed by the referee and the skeletons of their past become visible.
What we are left with are two broken men, their longing for lost boyhood summers eclipsed by a struggle to prove themselves against their peers.
“a faultless play, balancing contemplative moments with scenes of alcohol fuelled energy”
Not even a minute ago the audience was mingling in the downstairs bar, laughter and the exchange of greetings filling the room. Upon taking our seats in the theatre, however, the mood changes immediately. All the focus shifts to the lone figure sitting centre stage, the living room setting feels like it is being drained of all the life it might once have held.
Abi (Joyce Omotola) seems out of place amid bright and glittery decorations. Two balloons, in the shape of a one and a two, clearly mark this out as a 21st birthday party. Loud music is blaring, and a narrow table holds several bottles of alcohol and an impressive collection of red solo cups. A Happy Birthday sign has become partly detached from the front of the table and stray balloons are scattered across the floor.
Gradually, the music becomes more and more distorted until it completely gives way to Abi’s voice as she proclaims: “Humans need to feel like a pack. Hunter over the hunted”. The clickety-clack of a typewriter accompanies her speech. As she rises to her feet the purple spotlight which had been focused on Abi is extinguished, her figure now drenched in darkness. Classical music springs to life as the five remaining characters enter the stage, ethereally gliding into position surrounding the figure of Abi.
Omish, written by Sophie Soanes and directed by Ewa Dina, is the debut play of the newly formed Lunar Theatre Company. A collection of young, female creatives, they have made it their mission to support women whose voices and stories are not being represented on stage. The play takes place over the course of one night. It’s Savannah’s (Keletso Kesupile) 21st birthday party. All her best friends are invited, drinks have been poured and everyone is bursting with gossip. Between university commitments and new boyfriends, the friends have a lot to share. The celebratory atmosphere is broken by the arrival of Savannah’s cousin Abi who brings with her a past the group would rather forget.
The all-female cast fall into character without hesitation. Becky (Sophie Soanes), who embodies Cyndi Lauper’s hit song Girls Just Want to Have Fun, dispels any awkwardness from the group with her loud, energetic personality. Joining her and birthday girl Savannah are nuclear engineering student and Waitrose shopping vegan Lola (Naomi Emmanuel), social media influencer Zara (Laura White) and Jess (Shannon Watson) who, obsessed with her boyfriend, starts every sentence with Josh and me.
Omish is a faultless play, balancing contemplative moments with scenes of alcohol fuelled energy. Twists and turns lead the audience from a moment of safety to sudden danger. Lunar took on the challenge of discussing sex, pleasure, gender equality, terrorism, online witch hunts and more in one play and executed it perfectly. A praise which can’t be attributed to the talents of one individual only, but to the genuine feeling of friendship in the cast and the not to be missed, breath-taking story.