Pomona, Orange Tree Theatre

Pomona- Zeppo (Guy Rhys) and Keaton (Sarah Middleton)

Alistair McDowall has written an Escher staircase of a play. Or perhaps a spiral, looping around to almost but not quite the same point. Or perhaps it’s the M60 ring road at night, circling the city under the orange glow of the streetlights. Round and round.

Pomona is a nightmare. A thriller. A game. A mystery. A trip down the rabbit hole. A journey into the desert of the real.

Ollie is looking for her sister. She hopes to find her in Pomona – a desolate concrete wasteland just minutes from the centre of Manchester, a yawning void at the heart of the city. This place is also at the heart of McDowall’s tangled plot, the shadowy secret it hides offering the answer – or at least an answer – to his characters’ fearful questioning. Whether they want to see it, however, is another matter.

Layered on top of and bleeding into the real Pomona and the horrors it contains is another world, one of imagination and gameplay. Somewhere else in the city, sweetly enthusiastic nerd Charlie has found an unlikely friend in Keaton, the mysterious girl who joins in with the game of his own invention. Only the game has terrifying echoes of reality. Or is it the other way round?

Both McDowall’s writing and Ned Bennett’s adrenalin-pumped production are soaked in popular culture, further blurring the lines between fiction and reality. Indiana Jones. H. P. Lovecraft. Dungeons and Dragons. Horror movies and internet detritus. Chicken nuggets. It’s all distraction, all surface, as fleeting as the flash of the lights that flicker on and off between scenes.

This is theatre that worms its way inside the 21st-century state of mind, nestling itself amid internet memes and junk food. Pomona depicts a world where we can find out anything at the swipe of a finger. Information is endless, as one character articulates, so we have to choose. And if we choose what to know, then we also choose what not to know.

Pomona is about what we choose not to know. It is a play populated by all the things that lurk beneath: the monsters under the bed, the ghosts hiding in the shadows, and the murky, underground world that we all wilfully ignore. The dark, rising tide of urban myths. 

Everything about Bennett’s production heightens the lingering sense of unease. In designer Georgia Lowe’s sunken playing space, transforming (together with Elliot Grigg’s eerie lighting) the Orange Tree Theatre into a grimy subterranean landscape, the inhabitants of McDowall’s play scrabble around in the gutter, sucked inexorably towards the drain at its centre. There is no escape.

The characters, meanwhile, all have hints of the uncanny. Guy Rhys’ Zeppo, a man with an approach of studied ignorance towards the shady figures he deals with, leaps out of the show with cartoon-like detail, stealing the first scene with his lengthy, animated retelling of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ollie, played by the shape-shifting Nadia Clifford, seems not to be what she first appears. Even endearing, innocuous Charlie, getting most of the laughs in the capable hands of Sam Swann, has a murkier aspect. And most unsettling of all is Sarah Middleton’s precise, controlled Keaton – sometime girl, sometime monster.

But the terrifying thing is not the fiction, not the squid-headed creatures from the deep. The truly monstrous side of Pomona is to be found in the ugly, urgent truth its many tentacles prod at. As Zeppo puts it, “you go deep enough, you’ll find all this stuff, the detritus of our lives, it’s all built on this foundation of pain and shit and suffering”. That foundation usually sits, festering, at the edges of our consciousness; McDowall drags it to the centre. And when we find ourselves inside the game once again, there is a queasy feeling that this is a container for the all the things we can’t quite look in the eye. We need places to dump all the nastiness, places like Pomona.

We’re back to where we began. But wait – not quite. Is this game or reality now? Where are we? Haven’t we been here before?

Round and round. Round and round.

Photo: Manuel Harlan.

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