Urban Delirium: Pomona at the National Theatre

Sarah Middleton dons the mask of Chtulhu in Alistair McDowall's Pomona at the National Theatre. Photo by Richard Davenport.
Sarah Middleton dons the mask of Chtulhu in Alistair McDowall’s Pomona at the National Theatre. Photo by Richard Davenport.

There is a cruel irony at the centre of Pomona: it is such a striking piece of theatre precisely because it owes so little to the medium. True, as the play’s 27-year-old author Alistair McDowall recently told The Guardian, it does bear the influence of Beckett, Churchill and Edward Bond – but, in ways both direct and indirect, it is also indebted to

HP Lovecraft, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton, Disney’s early cartoons, David Foster Wallace, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy, the films of Polanski, Cronenberg, Fellini, Harmony Korine, the plays of Adam Rapp, the work of Laurie Anderson, Daniel Clowes, Pokémon, The Tempest and the music of William Basinski.

One can add to that, surely, J.G. Ballard, who would have approved of the play’s setting: Pomona, a concrete island in Manchester’s River Irwell made desolate by what can only be called development hell. There are also echoes, conscious or unconscious, of China Miéville: the concern with sinister urban counter-infrastructures recalls The City and the City; the presence of an ethereal squid-headed woman brings to mind – as well as Lovecraft’s Cthulhu – the scarab-headed khepri in Perdido Street Station.

Pomona is a fantastical mural of urban delirium, set in a noir-inflected cyberpunk city where you are never more than six feet away from the unspeakable. It follows Ollie (Nadia Clifford) as she looks for her missing sister. She meets the charismatic, oracular Zeppo (Guy Rhys), who owns much of the city but wilfully blinds himself to his clients’ nefarious activities. He lectures her in this process, which he calls “selective education”: we only learn what we want to learn, as the truth may be too hard to bear – which is why he doesn’t look into the origin of his Chicken McNuggets, of which he eats a hundred a day. This ethos is particularly germane to Charlie (Sam Swann), a guileless security guard who, when he isn’t playing a Dungeons and Dragons-style role-playing game with enigmatic girl-child Keaton (Sarah Middleton), is paid by a shady enterprise to wave vans in and out of Pomona. On the way, we meet the warm, wearied Fay (Rebecca Humphries), who inducts her into a brothel; the brash yet nervy Gale (Rochenda Sandall), at once an underworld kingpin and at the mercy of its pressures; and Moe (Sean Rigby), who wrestles psychopathic tendencies and is the Abbott to Charlie’s Costello. This is a monstrous diorama where the spectre lurks not just of prostitution but of organ harvesting, people-trafficking and snuff films.

Pomona was first staged at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and transfers to the National’s Temporary Theatre after an explosive run at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre. There, the play’s ultra-dark universe and genre-savvy compendiousness attracted a £10 army of under-30s, shocking the old-guard clientele. The cast is entirely intact, as is the bulk of the production: the only changes are the costumes, which have a more otherworldly feel, and Georgia Lowe’s set, which, due to the exigencies of the space, has changed from a concave pit to a surface-level drain. (Thankfully, the most memorable effect, in which it overflows with blood, is dutifully retained.)

The Temporary Theatre’s linear surface, however, is the only linear thing about the play. Its chronology is fractured, unbound; its vision emphasises circularity. Its world is trapped an endless loop of horror and industrialised corruption. Blood swirls down the plughole; actors run the circumference of the stage; Pomona is surrounded by the M60 ring road. Time in Pomona, as per Rust Cohle, is a flat circle.

Until the rather subdued last scenes, at least, Pomona‘s pace is relentless. To watch it – 100 minutes without interval – is to receive admission to a twisted but irresistible amusement park ride. The hotly-tipped Ned Bennett’s production is a ball of fire. The movement – by Polly Bennett, who oversaw the mass cast choreography at the Winter Olympics in Sochi – is dizzying, especially in the bravado scenes in which Charlie and Keaton play the RPG: they dance around each other, rarely in one place for long, straddling the stage as the play straddles genre. Giles Thomas’s score, meanwhile, is surely the most potent of the year, perhaps the decade: an Eraserhead-like gurgle that churns like a furnace, ensnaring us and never letting go. One particular moment – a no-holds-barred brawl between Charlie and Moe – sees all the production’s virtuosity working at full tilt: Thomas’s music pulses, virtually encouraging palpitations; Pamela Donald’s peerless fight direction turns the stage into something approaching a lion’s den; when Moe kicks Charlie in the head, Elliot Griggs’s lights turn off at the moment of each kick, while the music dissolves into single percussive blasts. This leaves the imagination to divine something surely much more brutal than anything we would actually have seen. The cast, too, are uniformly excellent – and praise must also be due for Isa Shaw-Abulafia’s latex-moulded Cthulhu mask, the centrepiece of Pomona‘s visual lexicon.

Pomona comes anointed as a theatrical watershed. Dan Rebellato hailed it as “the play of the decade”, ranking it alongside Blasted and Jerusalem; Exeunt had a roundtable, Oh Pomona, to “unpick why… it has got under everyone’s skin”. This breathlessness seems a tad excessive. Make no mistake, McDowall’s dialogue crackles; its porous diffusion between heightened fiction and banal reality is masterful; few plays can match its savage universe. However, it is also a young man’s statement of intent, with the caveats that this implies: there is perhaps a little too much delight it in its own edginess, while some digressions – particularly Charlie’s avowed obsession with covering the city in his semen – ought to be added to the ‘Theatre’ subcategory of the TV Tropes entry ‘Your Mileage May Vary’.

That said, its energy and ambition alone mean it stands head and shoulders above most theatrical programming. This context is crucial, for while Pomona is an achievement, it is relative, not absolute: it is so exceptional precisely because it is a play. This is where we return to the central irony of the beginning. McDowall grew up in Middlesbrough with little access to theatre; he was weaned on cinema, and is a professed aficionado of auteurs from Andrei Tarkovsky to Takashi Miike. If Pomona were a film, its reviews would be mixed; it would invite oppressive comparisons with Blade Runner, Brazil or RoboCop. But it this is a play, where such world-building is rarely attempted. Another case in point: one much-discussed scene sees the lights turn on and off to simulate jump cuts of Ollie moving closer and closer. On stage, this is eerie and startling, reconfiguring the space before our eyes; on screen, it might be overly reminiscent of the Weeping Angels in Doctor Who. It is testament to McDowall’s savvy that he knows that, while he cannot reinvent the dystopia, he can reinvent the theatre.

Pomona continues at the National Theatre’s Temporary Theatre until October 10. Tickets are £15-£20. On October 29, it moves on to Manchester’s Royal Exchange.

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