Reviews West End & Central Published 18 September 2015

Pomona

National Theatre ⋄ 10th September - 10th October 2015

As above, so below.

Lee Anderson

You’ll never look at a McDonald’s chicken nugget in the same way again.

The moment I arrive home after seeing Alistair McDowall’s Pomona, I find myself doing a very foolish thing. Instead of sitting down to write this review, I wind up trawling the Internet in one of those late-night Wikipedia marathons so beloved of conspiracy theorists, insomniacs and pro-plus fuelled undergraduates. It was a mistake I’m still paying the price for. In the ancient wisdom of High Priest of The Great Old Ones, Cthulu, it was ‘mnahn’. But if any play is capable of reducing its audience to a quivering wreck of tweaked-out paranoia, its McDowell’s genre-bending, urban-noir thriller.

What I should have done is opened up a Word document and hunkered down to write something sensible. I could have written something about the dread-inducing atmosphere of Giles Thomas’ guttural soundscape. I could have tried to capture its rumbles and reverberations or expounded on how it seems to recall the infernal roar of Angelo Badalamenti’s Eraserhead soundtrack.

I could have offered up some choice words on the befouled squalor of Georgia Lowe’s design. Perhaps elaborated a little on how this enclosed hexagon of concrete and metal creates the impression of a gladiatorial arena – a dystopian battleground of granite and steel.

I could have rambled on about director Ned Bennett’s frenetic staging. I could have described the hectic speed of the production or the needle sharp performances that populate it. I could have praised Rebecca Humphries for her outstanding performance as no-nonsense prostitute, Fay, whose brittle exterior acts as a mask for vulnerability. Or commended Sam Swann for his hilarious turn as the loquacious RPG-aficionado Charlie.

But I didn’t. Instead, I’m sat huddled in front of my laptop screen, googling the recipe for McDonald’s chicken-nuggets and becoming increasingly nauseous.

***

Pomona is a play about surfaces and the horrors that lie beneath them. It’s a parable for the violent forces that society sweeps under the rug; a fable for our collective complicity in allowing such brutal violence to endure beneath the radar. Pomona imagines a world in which those destructive energies break through the thin crust of our civilised lives. Not that the world of McDowall’s play is particularly civilised. The inner-city wasteland of its title might sound like something out of a J.G Ballard novel, but the despair and dereliction it represents is all too real.

Pomona is the name of a deserted concrete-island in the centre of Manchester: an urban wilderness couched in darkness where not a soul breathes and no weed dares to grow. Below the island run a series of tunnels concealing a terrible secret. There is only one way in and one way out. In McDowall’s hands, this anomalous exclusion zone becomes a twisted totem for all the horrors we attempt to suppress from view; a ‘hole in the centre of the city’ which threatens to bubble to the surface and extend its tendrils into every dark corner of our lives.

The plot is straight up urban-noir; prized from the pages of pulp sci-fi novels with some kitchen-sink realism thrown in for good measure. Ollie (Nadia Clifford) is searching for her missing sister – who may or may not exist. Charlie (Sam Swann) and Moe (Sean Rigby) are tasked with tracking down a mysterious woman, while Fay (Rebecca Humphries) is on the cusp of uncovering the terrible truth behind the mystery of a group of ‘missing’ women.

But McDowall doesn’t let us off that easy. Pomona’s kaleidoscopic form plunges us deeper and deeper into a spiralling rabbit-hole where time bends, contracts and loops back on itself with dizzying aplomb. But this is also a play threaded through with homages and allusions. There is a genre-savvy playfulness at work here. McDowell’s mélange of Matrix-style cyberpunks, Lovecraftian horror and dystopian nightmare isn’t a million miles from Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns in its fusion of pop-culture and politics.

Structurally, McDowall’s play unfolds like an exploded puzzle board crying out to be reassembled; its fragmentary, hallucinatory, cyclical narrative doubling back on itself Lost Highway style. It’s a vertiginous, head-scratching experience; a swirling fusion of pastiche, surrealism and Burroughs-style narrative acrobatics built from the odds-and-ends of our trash-culture lexicon.

In the world of Pomona, reality becomes stranger than fiction. Despite the play’s dystopian trappings, McDowall insists that the horrors within are no mere fantasy; they are all too real, bubbling beneath the surface, threatening to rise up and seize us at any moment.

Stewart Pringle’s review of Pomona at the Orange Tree

Exeunt’s group review of Pomona

Pomona: The Making of The Mask

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Lee Anderson

Lee is a writer and critic living in London. Despite subsisting solely on a diet of Marmite sandwhiches, black coffee and Marlboro Light, Lee survived the crush of academia and graduated with a first-class degree in English & Film and Theatre from the University of Reading in 2011 (a decision he has struggled to explain to his parents ever since). As well as slating work as a critic, Lee is also making work as a playwright, thus both having his cake and eating it too. He is also an Associate Artist of SQUINT theatre company.

Pomona Show Info


Directed by Ned Bennett

Written by Alistair McDowall

Cast includes Nadia Clifford, Rebecca Humphries, Sarah Middleton, Sean Rigby, Guy Rhys, Sam Swann, Rochenda Sandall

Link http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

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