As much as we might enjoy the traditional, the nostalgic and the classics (especially around Christmas), sometimes audiences need to be pushed and challenged, whether they like it or not. What is art if it doesn’t make you think?
Pomona, then, is a brave and daring choice for Paul Miller, the new artistic director of the Orange Tree Theatre, written by young playwright Alistair McDowall and directed by Ned Bennett. It is a surreal and unsettling work that pushes the boundaries of theatrical storytelling with its unconventional structure and frightening imagery.
The plot alone is bizarre, with layers of Roman mythology, fantasy role-playing games, Lovecraftian horror and modern day urban paranoia. Set in a seemingly eternally nocturnal Manchester, Ollie is searching for her missing sister. After a lengthy meeting with the eccentric Zeppo she is directed to Pomona, a neglected concrete island at the heart of the city. It's a place of urban myth – nobody ever returns. Her story is paralleled by the nerdy RPG-playing security guard Charlie, a prostitute seeking to uncover the truth about what goes on in the depths of Pomona, and a mysterious alien-like young girl called Keaton.
It’s a thematically dense piece full of weighty duologues and monologues that touch upon human trafficking, modern apathy, the need for human connection and the dice rolls of fate. If that concoction alone is confusing, it’s all further confounded by a fractured, time-travelling narrative. Like a jigsaw puzzle, we gradually piece together the plot from start to finish and back to the start again, yet what the final picture looks like is very much up for debate.
Where Pomona most succeeds is in its mood and tone. Set in the round, the action swirls around a drain-like pit of despair: grimy, sickly and highlighting the cyclical nature of the plot. Like Pomona itself, it’s where the dregs of society are sucked into, never to be seen again. The use of light and shadow is remarkable, the flickering beams, torchlight and sudden blackouts as dark and disorientating as the plot itself.
Yet it remains a thoroughly gripping noir thriller, thanks predominantly to McDowall’s conversational dialogue and some superbly committed performances. The setting may be fantastical, but the characters remain believable. There’s plenty of dark comedy that brings some welcome humanity, in particular from Nadia Clifford as the sassy headstrong Ollie and Sam Swann as the childlike and lovable Charlie. And whilst much of the language is crude, the lengthy speeches are well-paced and captivating.
Pomona is a strikingly original play that will undoubtedly split audiences. It bemuses as much as it thrills, but that’s all part of its appeal as we fall helplessly further down the drain.
Watch: Pomona runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until 13th December.