It is best to go along to The Forge Collective’s production of Never Swim Alone by Canadian playwright, Daniel MacIvor, with no preconceptions about what the pre-publicity of, “a swift, ferocious satire about two Alpha-Males and their ruthless competition to be crowned the winner”, actually means. Whatever that definition brings to your mind, I would wager that you will leave the theatre in another place entirely.
Frank and Bill, two men who have known each other since school days, are pitted against each other in a surreal twelve round battle of wits and machismo overseen by the enigmatic Referee. Directed by Alexander Hick, this production opens with a visually powerful hint that this battle stems from the men’s need to come to terms with a life-changing shared experience in their past.
Jack Dillon as Frank and Azan Ahmed as Bill, both recent drama graduates from Royal Holloway University of London, deliver some strong acting performances and commendable race-blind casting is evident here. Throughout the bizarre ’rounds’ both ably demonstrate the characters’ similarities and differences in initially verbal and later more primevally physical sparring. The spectacle of the two dressed identically in dark suits speaking sometimes in perfect unison and sometimes telling their own unique stories is dramatically arresting and a triumph of theatrical technique.
Tabatha Gregg-Allured, a current final year drama student at Royal Holloway, does not initially appear to be the particularly dominant and neutral figure one might think the role of The Referee should demand but as the contest continues, her girlishly expressive face is key to the audience’s realisation of her identity and her real significance in Frank and Bill’s lives.
Indeed, Gregg-Allured’s expressions and reactions were, for me, the only real link between the purpose of the contest and the story of the two boys and one girl, having spent the whole summer on the beach in the bay, daring each other to swim out to “the Point” on the last day of the holidays, a dare that was to go horribly wrong. It is only towards the conclusion of the short, sharp show that the two stories come together and the ending itself seems a little abrupt and slightly unsatisfactory in the light of the circumstances that had brought it about. A longer play might have been able to intertwine the back story more cohesively with the present contest and make us feel more for the characters.
However, these are writing issues and should not detract from the captivating performances of the three young actors who have obviously thrown everything at to the script that they have to work with. Choreography and lighting are striking too, in particular in the climactic ‘swimming to the point’ scene. In theatrical terms Never Swim Alone sparkles. As an attempt at an exploration of the very nature of masculinity, it is found a little wanting. Perhaps that’s The Point?