Never Swim Alone
Reviewed – 28th November 2018
“A swift and savage piece of satire”
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.
Reviewed by Alexandra Wilbraham
Photography by Harry Elletson
Never Swim Alone
Etcetera Theatre until 1st December
Previous ten shows reviewed at this venue: