Having kicked off his first season with two fine productions of a determinedly realist, domestic nature – one (The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd [review]) a classic; the other (The Distance [review]) contemporary - Paul Miller now ventures into considerably weirder, wilder terrain with his third offering as artistic director of the Orange Tree.
Named for a mysterious locale in the middle of Manchester (an empty lot that used to be a dock; a “hole in the heart of the city,” if you will) and exploring urban unease, ignorance and alienation with wide-ranging allusiveness and plentiful injections of the surreal, Alistair McDowall’s Pomona has already generated considerable online hype: enough to entice theatregoers who’ve previously taken zero interest in this venue over the years. And even those of us who feel that the show doesn’t quite live up to the build up (or to the wildly over-effusive praise that followed Friday’s press night) would be hard-pressed to deny the ambition of this erratic but consistently intriguing piece of writing, the impact of which is much enhanced by Ned Bennett’s arresting production.
In interview, McDowall has identified a bewildering array of intertexts and inspirations for Pomona, from Faulkner, Fellini and Foster Wallace to Flannery O’Connor through Buster Keaton, Pokémon and Dungeons and Dragons. Overlooking the (rather more obvious) debts to Simon Stephens and Sarah Kane that the piece exhibits, it’s video games that have clearly had the most direct impact upon the play both formally and tonally, and which give the evening much of its excitement and novelty value.
Like many an RPG, the play pivots upon a quest narrative of sorts, one based around a girl called Ollie (Nadia Clifford) and her search for her missing sister. “Lot of talk about people disappearing. Pomona’s a place that finds itself in those conversations,” reveals a character early on, and Ollie’s quest is interwoven with various other narrative strands – among them, those involving a testy procuress, a runaway wife and two “security guards” charged with undertaking a killing – as the drama builds up to a jagged, jittery portrait of the multiple kinds of maltreatment and maleficence occurring in the metropolis.
For better and for worse, Pomona is every inch a young man’s play. It’s show-offy, self-consciously “edgy,” paranoid about power, and it offers a modishly grim vision of a society based on exploitation, violence and abuse (prostitution, porn, trafficking and snuff are all evoked at various points): the kind of vision that tends to get some critics very excited indeed. “Everything bad is real” declaims a character at one point; other proffered pearls of pessimism include “[t]he whole world hates women,” and a definition of life as “built on [a] foundation of pain and shit and suffering”: “a cycle of shit…A drowning in oceans of piss.” Well … shit.
With a looping, non-linear arrangement of scenes, McDowall works hard to ensure that there’s no chance at all of a viewer fully grasping the piece on a first viewing, either. And it’s only through reading the play afterwards that I began to make connections between characters and events which remain frustratingly opaque in performance. As a puzzle-play the piece lacks the concealing-and-disclosing elegance of a work like Ana Diosdado’s amazing Yours For The Asking, which was performed at the OT in 2012. Elegance, clearly, is not Pomona’s intended effect, but there are problems, I think, with the way certain scenes here fail to connect and achieve their full resonance.
But for all its overt pretentions, willful obfuscations and irritating digressions (an opening riff that attempts to do for Indiana Jones what Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns did for The Simpsons; a later semen-focused fantasy), Pomona is also a work of some genuine vision, and Bennett’s production helps to uncover its stronger aspects for the most part. Technically, the production is truly terrific, with a great lighting design by Elliot Griggs - flickering neon and sudden plunges into darkness - and choreography by Polly Bennett that sometimes sets the seven-strong cast in motion like so many online avatars. The roughing up of the repertoire also extends to the roughing up of the auditorium with Georgia Lowe’s spare design creating a pit in the stage where the protagonists confront each other.
The staging supplies several electrifying images, aided by the intimacy of the OT’s space. And Bennett also shows his adroitness by knowing when to cut back the flashiness and bring the proceedings to a quieter, more subdued place, too. One of the most haunting episodes is a hushed encounter between two characters – the one a victim, the other a perpetrator of abuse – that’s expertly rhythmed and performed to perfection by Rebecca Humphries and Sean Rigby. The ending of the show, however, feels oddly limp.
By turns brilliant and baffling, silly and scary, Pomona will be a big hit. In terms of mood, language and attitude it’s precisely the kind of play that a lot of people are desirous to see right now. A great deal of calculation has gone into it, and in my opinion the end result is more artful than genuinely insightful, ultimately. Nor is it correct to say (as some ill-informed tweeters have been saying) that this is a play that’s single-handedly “revitalised” the Orange Tree repertoire: the programming at this venue has always been much more adventurous than the media has chosen to recognise, with the last year alone seeing plays by Caryl Churchill, David Mamet, and Stephen Sewell performed, not to mention a wide-ranging Festival dedicated entirely to new writing. Still, Pomona looks likely to represent a turning point in perceptions of the theatre, and confirms McDowall as a writer to watch. The piece offers much to admire, much to take issue with. But it’s a show to see, and to argue about.
Pomona is booking until 13 December. Further information at the Orange Tree website.