Never Swim Alone – Alma Tavern Theatre, Bristol ***

Never-Swim-Alone©FarrowsCreative (2)

What does it take to be the ideal man? In the 50s, it was the cool, Rat Pack repartee of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr; the 60s, the Everyman charms of Steve McQueen. By the 80s it was the behemoths of Arnie and Stallone, today it’s Gosling and Clooney that are held on a pedestal. How you become a man, the champion of the universe; respected by men, lusted after by women, adored by all; with the pressures that come with this is at the heart of Never Swim Alone, a late 90s play from Canadian writer Daniel Maclvor.

Set over 12 rounds, two men Frank and Bill, almost identical in look and accomplishment compete as to who is ‘the ideal of man’, officiated by a memory of a woman who has clearly affected their past and still haunts their present. Only one can be left standing by the end. It starts off small and inconsequential; who is taller, sharpest dressed, best taste in food, biggest manhood. Frank made more money last year, Bill has a massive house out in the suburbs. Frank has a thing with his receptionist while at least Bill could tell you where his wife was last night. It keeps building, the competition nastier, the lengths the men are prepared to stoop to lower. Modern male malaise doesn’t seem to have moved on much in the last twenty years if this is any indication: work, image, accessories violence is at the heart. What has modern man sacrificed, Maclvor asks, in its chase for complete domination?

Sharp and as funny as his play is it can’t help comparisons with Brecht’s own boxing ring satire In The Jungle Of Cities. That parable turned competition from two men and addressed the collapse of a city, the outlook here is smaller, personal rather than political and comes across as a lesser work as a result. It also builds to a melodramatic climax that doesn’t seem a natural fit for the work even if Cameron Carver’s exuberant direction prepares us for it.

Carver’s past experience as a choreographer is in evidence here; the piece is drilled to within an inch of its life. It’s sometimes exhilarating, a constant blur of movement, sharp and on-point, set to John O’Hara’s rhythmic drumming score and Carver is clearly a talent of huge potential but he doesn’t always let the play breathe. It’s played at such a gallop that incident is piled upon incident and there is little time to draw breath yet alone reflect. It may help paper over some of the plays own cracks but it does a disservice to his own vision. Sometimes less is more.

His cast is fully committed to his vision; Tom Byrne and George Howard strut and preen, manipulate and fight and gradually turn to sweating messes in their one one-upmanship battle while Jessica Temple adjudicates with eye swirling disapproval and delightful girlish giggles.

It may be a play about male ego but if there is any evidence needed, Temple’s performance makes it clear that it is ultimately women who rule the roost. And on this evidence, thank God for that.

Runs until 21 May 2016 | Image: Farrows Creative

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