Charlie is playing an RPG with a strange young girl. It’s just the two of them, so he’s playing Dungeon Master and guiding her through a Lovecraftian quest to the domain of Cthulhu, Elder God of timeless malevolence. But Charlie doesn’t realise that the game is real, and the monsters are real, and that the hidden evil at the centre of things throbs and devours in the dark heart of his hometown. Deliriously inventive and eye-wideningly obscene, Alistair McDowall’s new play is a horrific fantasia of terrors and cruelties which are absolutely, mercilessly real.
Pomona is a no-man’s land where not even streetlights dare to shine. An urban wasteland that nobody knows or wants to know about, it holds a secret which fragile young woman Ollie hopes will lead her to her missing twin sister. Perhaps it’s a front for some shady government operation? Perhaps it’s the home of an unimaginable monster from beyond the universe? Or maybe it’s something even worse? McDowall dares you to believe that anything is possible, and as in his earlier Brilliant Adventures, succeeds in drawing a world in which generic boundaries or categories like science-fiction, fantasy and realism fall away.
Again, like that earlier play, McDowall wears his catholic range of interests proudly. There’s a hint of Dennis Kelly’s Utopia at play here, with a mystery that swirls in circles like water running towards some terrible sinkhole. But then there’s also a bit of Cabin in the Woods and Stephen King’s IT. Simon Stephens’ influence shows through here more powerfully than it has before, and not just in McDowall’s similarly convincing urban noir – there’s also some of his recent letch for the mythical, as Pomona carves out its own grubby pantheon of gods and monsters.
The mystery/thriller structure is ingenious and clicks satisfyingly into place, and Ned Bennett’s fine production makes strong plays with the play’s slippery sense of time and character. A few ambiguities frustrate in their refusal to pull into focus, but it’s all part of the game McDowall is playing with our desire to gain knowledge or to avoid it. To bury our heads in the sand or risk having them ripped off by horrors we’d hoped could never exist.
That’s the gruesome and truthful understanding in Pomona’s shadowy centre – our shared knowledge that the world contains sufferings so appalling that we block them out entirely or force them into exclusion zones so we don’t have to acknowledge our own cognisance of their existence. That’s a huge concept, a tremendous concept, and for all of his play with Lovecraftian mythos and Dungeons & Dragons, McDowall confronts it full in the face, red in tooth and claw. The trappings may dabble in myth and legend, but the world that orbits Pomona is real. There’s no escape clause. Those things you don’t like to think about, McDowall asks, what if they’re evenworse than you thought they were? And what if our refusal to accept culpability, to ask difficult questions, what if that’s feeding them? What if that’s what they’re made of?
Bennett’s production is cool and minimal, with a grimy basin-like design from Georgia Lowe that succeeds in blasting the cobwebs off this re-ascendant venue. Green, gem-like D-20’s are a recurring motif, as are the structures and conventions of role-playing games, those liminal territories between real world actions and fantastic possibilities. Bennett works with a superb cast, too, particularly Sam Swann as jizz-obsessed super-geek Charlie and Rebecca Humphries as the wounded but defiant Fay. A woman determined to discover the truth, but gradually realising that her fears of universal violent misogyny may not only be justified, but may be the horrific answer she is searching for.
But in the face of all of this misery, McDowall’s play remains incredibly entertaining and extremely funny, if the smiles do tend to fall away as the truth about Pomona seeps to the surface. It’s playful to the point where a little tightening could bring greater clarity, but would risk compromising some of the loose and casual charm of McDowall’s style. It’s an extraordinary play about evil, about violence, about the abuse of women, of organised crime within and without of the establishment, of dehumanisation and above all about wilful ignorance. The John who kids himself that the woman he pays for sex is probably having a right royal Belle de Jour whale of a time. The man who collects his paycheque and turns a blind eye to the iniquity of his employer. The people who use and abuse and ignore and marginalise and hate and forget. They’re the real monsters. And they’re us. They’re all of us.