National Theatre, Temporary Theatre
Pomona presents itself as a dystopian mystery thriller set in Manchester in the present day. Alistair McDowall’s play opened at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond in 2014, and comes to the National as a three-way joint production also including the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, to where it moves for the final part of this year. The play runs without an interval.
The action takes place around a large seven-sided drain, which at one point in the drama overflows alarmingly with blood. There are no furnishings, but the combination of an ominous sound-track and complex lighting sequences are used to summon up an atmosphere of urban alienation and edgy, potentially violent encounters.
A variety of loosely connected storylines are developed built around six characters – there is Ollie (Nadia Clifford), who has come to Manchester in search of her sister who has gone missing; Fay (Rebecca Humphries) a prostitute who tries to help Ollie in her search and navigates her way through a threatening underworld dominated by brothel madam, Gale (Rochenda Sandall), and potentially abusive clients. Then there is Zeppo (Guy Rhys) a sinister property magnate, who protects himself from potential enemies by remaining perpetually on the move on the Manchester ring road. A character who is at one remove from the others is Keaton (Sarah Middleton), who at some points intervenes in the action and at others stands aside from the action wearing a Cthulu octopus-mask. The cast is completed by a couple of security guards, Charlie (Sam Swann) and Moe (Sean Rigby) who uneasily watch over the entrance to Pomona, a derelict area of central Manchester between two stretches of the canal.
Lorries enter and depart from the site, but what are they carrying? Is this connected to the mysterious and uninvestigated disappearance of people in the centre of town that Zeppo mentions right at the beginning of the play? Is the missing sister part of this story? Is the brothel where Fay is working participating in the trafficking of body parts? Are Moe and Charlie engaged in plotting a murder? Will Ollie manage to get into Pomona and what will she find there? These and many other questions are posed and partially enacted in the course of about 100 minutes, but the connections between them are never even partially elucidated.
This may be because all of the action is part of a complex, role-playing gaming scenario akin to ‘Dungeons & Dragons’. Are Charlie and Keaton in particular setting up a series of possibilities that are simply to be resolved by a throw of the dice, so that in fact there is no stable story to be had in any case? What order are the events taking place, or is that random too? All these issues remain unresolved.
What we have here therefore is a sequence of individual scenes, several memorably scripted and acted in themselves, that never coalesce into a firm narrative or stable symbolic or emotional shape. One has to assume that this is quite deliberate on the part of the author, and indeed several reviewers have praised this deliberate resistance to traditional forms and structures as a clever and stylish mingling of naturalism and fantasy, urban dislocation and gaming rituals, sci-fi thriller and arcane H.P.Lovecraft, layered-fantasy.
I willing to concede that I have may have missed a great deal, and certainly the mainly youngish audience loved it on press night; but to me this was ultimately a preposterous mish-mash of possibilities that never gelled. The Emperor never deigned to wear any clothes for long enough for us to care about any of the characters or gain a sense of thrill or sustained absorption from the situations evoked.
At the micro-level there was a lot of very detailed work by all of the actors that deserves credit. For example, Humphries dug deep emotionally in her portrayal of a sex worker at the end of her emotional tether. This was much more than a ‘tart with a heart’ performance: she showed real tenderness where needed and cold realism in a remarkable scene with Rigby who uses her as a sounding-board for discussing his violent fantasies and previous record of violence.
All the scenes involving Charlie were memorable too, thanks to Swann’s nuanced depiction of shyness and reticence in the face of impossible external demands, and a refreshing dose of humour in the text that was generally absent elsewhere. He also managed to bring the role-play sections to plausible life as well before that energy was dissipated in further confusion and thematic fragmentation. This role is much more thickly written than some of the others, with a memorable if disconcerting line in imagery too. There were indications here of the detailed quality of writing and depth of textured characterization that were available to the author, if he had chosen to go in that direction.
I am conscious of perhaps sounding of fogeyish in offering this kind of critique, and would certainly not wish to suggest that in this genre of writing you have to join up all the dots with a deadening literalism. The raw material of this play is very promising, and if only a few of the far too many themes opened up were teased out further many of these anxieties could have been overcome. At present one feels that what clearly makes sense to the closed community of the cast needs testing on a wider cross-section of a potential audience. This might lead to clearer and more frequent signposting of both character and plot and mood.
As one would expect here at the National the creative team offered accomplished work in movement, costume, sound and lighting and director Ned Bennett, kept things moving very smoothly with good and varied use of the open set. The problem is simply that this show is too clever by half, too caught in a net of its own referencing and bracketing techniques. It is full of ‘sound and fury’ signifying in the end.. not so much.