Pomona – at The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

This edgy play is best for fantasy and sci-fi fans decides Liz Vercoe.....

.... Otherwise, be prepared to feel uncomfortable. If you are too old to have absorbed much about Dungeons and Dragons or too young to have cut your post-apocalyptic teeth on the movie Soylent Green you might struggle with several of the references in this new 19-scene play by Alistair McDowall.

That still might not matter if you remain intrigued by the unfolding (or, rather, rolling up) of the story. However, although it’s a story that drags you in with a punch you sometimes feel you are just hanging on in there because, ironically for a fantasy, the core of the story is not quite original enough.

Guy Rhys as Zeppo © Ben Clare

The Orange Tree stage has been transformed into a square drain; think of an abandoned lido paddling pool. Here we meet a bearded man with a leg brace wearing a filthy parka over vest and underpants. He’s chicken nugget-loving Zeppo, played on hyper-drive by Guy Rhys . With him is Egyptian-eyed Newcastle lass Ollie (captivating Nadia Clifford) who has come to Manchester to hunt for her missing sister. The third figure on stage is a silent woman in a dainty skirt and an octopus-head mask who must be fed chunky polyhedral dice.

For those in the know, which from sniggers seemed to be a great number of a young audience, the references have already started.

Over the next 100 minutes (no interval) we get to know Gale, an icy Madame with a secret in her laptop (played by Grace Thurgood); good-hearted prostitute Fay (Rebecca Humphries); Moe (Sean Rigby), a struggling security guard and part-time psychopath; and Charlie (Sam Swann), a disturbingly endearing weirdo with delusions of omnipotence. Oh and meek little Keaton (Annes Elwy) who befriends Charlie and who, you can’t help notice, wears the same clothes as octopus woman.

Sarah Middleton as Keaton & Grace Thurgood as Gale © Ben Clare
But there’s no jumping to conclusions with this play. It cleverly keeps you off balance. Ollie may or may not have an identical twin sister. Are you watching a game or reality or both? Is there any difference? Is the story going forwards or backwards? Have other people disappeared? Do identical clothes mean anything?

What you do know without any doubt is that the world this play imagines is bleak and unforgiving. And peopled by very damaged individuals who can barely forge speaking relationships, let alone friendships. This is a class or group of people who don’t have a rusty can in a crusher’s chance of improving their circumstances and escaping. It also underlines for anyone and everyone the all-too-present terror of an “unknown something” being out to get you.

Its name and setting is a real place in Manchester. Pomona, the name of the goddess of abundance and fruitfulness is, ironically, the name of a still derelict strip of land, former docks, near Old Trafford and the Lowry Centre. All of which adds meaning to the play. McDowell can remind you of Tom Stoppard with all his referencing.

Under Ned Bennett’s direction the cast deliver the lines masterfully for they are required to both narrate and converse, often in interweaving staccato bursts, just as the stage is often plunged into blackness like very slow strobe lighting. All to a sound backdrop of often atonal music.
All good and building a bigger picture – you’re not short-changed on quality here. But what failed to surprise/shock was the reveal of why people are disappearing in this tale. Common fodder for fiction. And it can also be a problem if half the audience laugh at stuff the other half doesn’t get, leaving them feeling as alienated as the characters in the play. Effective audience participation? Maybe, but I don’t think intentional. But then that never stopped Stoppard, thank goodness.

You can buy the script/programme for £4

Pomona runs until 13 December. Post show talks 27 November 2.30pm and 2 December 7.30pm.

Liz Vercoe

November 18, 2014