Tom Sutcliffe on the bleak vision presented by Alistair McDowall’s Pomona
Alistair McDowall is a new 27-year-old playwright whose Pomona at the Orange Tree in Richmond-on-Thames has really scored a hit. I read that he has written 16 plays already, and he may be the most interesting new theatre-writing talent to have shown up here since Martin McDonagh emerged at the Royal Court in the 1990s. Trying to find out more about him, I discovered a pretty dumb question-and-answer promotional page for the Court where his answer to what was his greatest fear was: ‘Karaoke. Or, you know, nuclear war.’ Brilliant. I immediately warmed to him. He looks very lively, writes in a university library to which he claims he is not supposed to have access, is acute, rather than just sharp, and has that perfect ear for what people actually say that is essential if you want to make money out of theatre. I just hope he doesn’t get tempted into the richer world of television, and spoilt by boredom.
Not plain sailing
Pomona is a weird, bleak and in some ways quite annoying experience. I had trouble getting on its wavelength – wrong age bracket. The Orange Tree, a small agreeable theatre-in-the-round, had a lot of young people in the audience, who obviously got into it at once. A character called Zeppo played by Guy Rhys, an actor with one leg and a prosthesis, gives a hyped-up intro to where we are – Manchester urban wilderness (Pomona is a marooned concrete island used by crims in a motorway maze), and a girl called Ollie (Nadia Clifford) is seeking her missing sister – who may be a figment of some odd psychological condition in her mind.
How it all fits together, how the roster of seven very well-drawn and unusual young people in the play encounter each other and keep going, is definitely not plain sailing. Which is very much the point. This is not a play with an obvious political purpose. We meet a rare sample of fellow human beings drawn very true to life. McDowall is not telling us what to think. It is not about something happening, though the characters find the diversions they need. There are even scenes where one is uncertain that the right person is speaking the right lines: the playtext advises that at various points it is up to the director to decide who gets to say certain lines that are up for grabs.
So one can be forgiven for not grasping who’s who. Which girl was Keaton (Sarah Middleton) and which was Gale (Grace Thurgood)? Sean Rigby as a somewhat dim goon called Moe, and Sam Swann as a young not quite sure wannabe Charlie who makes money offering real-life ‘dungeons and dragons’ experience for cash are just as immaculately observed as the four females in the show. The way they all evoke an entire world of activities and power-plays with almost no props and perfectly ordinary everyday clothes is tribute to the extremely crafty and well-achieved direction of Ned Bennett (who already directed a different cast in the play’s first outing at the Welsh College in Cardiff). The most rounded of all the characters, Fay, a working girl with a strong sense of realism and very sympathetic toughness, was beautifully created by Rebecca Humphries.
In other words there is a provisional quality about the narrative being mystifyingly unfolded. It could go in various directions. Definitely not the well-made play designed to draw to conclusions the playwright wants us to think: nor is it set to be a lot of fun. It is cruel, full of frustration and unkindness. Like life. In fact what makes it such an authentic document is the way it resonates with the general disempowerment and helplessness (characteristic today) of everybody save the exceptionally rich, as Noam Chomsky was saying on Newsnight not long ago.
Lack of power the young of today feel acutely, the impossibility of escape from a world over which they have no control. The life McDowall evokes is full of diversion but empty of promise. Everybody has info at their finger-tips (not always reliable) and no ability to make a dent in the frustrating inequalities of wealth around us or the social immobility that blocks natural optimism – especially as one looks lower in the circles of the inadequately employed.
The physical vitality of the performers in Ned Bennett’s staging stems from a solid course of physical workshops involving a lot of fast movement in a small, almost completely uncluttered and unaesthetic acting space. In the auditorium one sat around a square damp-looking lower-level sort of sink. Any sense of physical dimension and presence came from complex games-playing and scary discussion. The actors and actresses get mixed in, failing to do what they should or get what they want. It is most like child play, yet leads to fierce moral dilemma that in turn generates perhaps a shaft of dawning optimism. The girls and the lads have very different chemistry. It is not about sex, though prostitution and drugs come up. And snuff movies and a contract on Fay’s life. Bennett’s excellently moulded ensemble are totally absorbed and committed to making this unusual vernacular picture blatantly, ferociously alive.
This emphatically is not how the world seemed when I was young, even in romanticized crime films. One is very far from the history as middle-class experience that school used to be in the Fifties when the map was pink and the sun was not setting on the British Empire that had won the war and saved civilization. The rising generation now are unsure about any future, long or short. Just provisionally keeping busy seems the most to hope for.