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.

Superior Donuts, Southwark Playhouse


Originally written for Exeunt.

Arthur Przybyszewski’s donut shop, a relic of an American dream past its sell-by date, is being taken away from him piece by piece. In this UK premiere of Tracy Letts’ 2008 play, Fly Davis’ deliberately dilapidated design is falling away at the edges, its grubby walls at once sturdily worn and precariously fragile. It’s the sort of place that radiates the permanence of having been around forever and yet might disappear tomorrow, stamped out by the unstoppable advance of Starbucks.

Such is the contemporary America of Superior Donuts. The context of Letts’ drama is rootedly specific, making frequent reference to its surroundings in Chicago and taking the donut shop of the title as a focal point for the lives of those who pass through it, but it equally speaks to a wider sense of modern malaise. Arthur, an ageing hippie nursing the failures of his idealistic youth amid the ruins of his family business, exhibits a paralysis that seems to typify contemporary apathy. There’s a stubbornness to his resistance to change, but also a weary resignation that can be read in every gesture of Mitchell Mullen’s performance. Here is a man who greets life with slumped shoulders.

Into these stale surroundings, where most of the donuts go to a pair of passing cops and an old wino who never pays a penny, enters the requisite young American dreamer. Jonathan Livingstone’s infectiously energetic Franco is a bundle of enthusiasm, ideas and audacious ambitions, both for the “great American novel” that he has penned in dog-eared exercise books and the donut shop that is falling apart around him. The set up, and subsequently much of the action, is typical clash of the generations, old-cynic-meets-young-optimist stuff, as the new employee grapples with his jaded boss in his attempts to ring in the change. Superior Donuts rehearses a familiar and distinctly American narrative, one littered with the wreckage of dreams but faintly illuminated by friendship and hope.

And yet, hard as it is to pin down, there’s something more to it than that. Letts’ play – and indeed Ned Bennett’s production – has a way of sneaking up on its audience. It is delicate, meandering and unapologetically slow, its rhythm capturing the ebb, flow and occasional eddies of everyday life in this fading staple of uptown Chicago. The pace is slowed even further by the occasionally frustrating interjection of Arthur’s introspective monologues about his past, which have more of a literary than a theatrical quality. Just as the itch comes to check your watch, however, you discover that the play has somehow grabbed you – ever so gently, mind – right by the scruff of the neck.

It is possibly down to the characters, who are deftly captured by Bennett and his cast. Mullen and Livingstone in the central pairing are particularly compelling, their relationship endearing without giving in too much to sentimentality, while Sarah Ball’s policewoman packs a world of yearning into a few snatched glances. Each of the individuals who passes through Arthur’s donut shop, however fleetingly, feels convincingly, compassionately sketched.

But perhaps it has more to do with the play’s relationship to hope, a relationship that is more complicated than it might appear at first glance. Bennett has described the piece as “hugely optimistic”, which it is in many ways, but neither the play nor this production are quite that straightforward. Just as Davis’ design has stripped whole panels from the walls, this is a world in retreat, being dismantled bit by bit in the wake of corporate expansion. It’s telling that even the great dreamer enthuses in marketing speak, discussing poetry readings in the same breath as brand identity. There is optimism to be found, not least in Letts’ determined use of the future tense, but even hope is shown to have its limits.

Naturalism, Optimism and Donuts


Originally written for Exeunt.

Ned Bennett is telling me a story about the back wall of the Royal Court, a fixture held in reverential affection by a good chunk of the theatre community. During preparations for The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas, the ordinarily black wall – which was visible for portions of the show – had to be made to look like exposed brickwork. Instead of stripping the paint back to the bricks beneath it, Bennett explains, the black surface was painted over with brick-effect artwork. Bricks painted to look like bricks.

This small absurdity is oddly apt for both the postmodern commentary of Gorge Mastromas, in which surface is everything, and for the self-mythologizing urges of the Royal Court. Few theatres are quite so invested in their own history. Bennett emerges fresh from this environment, having just finished a year as trainee director with the theatre, in twelve months that spanned the departure of Dominic Cooke, the arrival of Vicky Featherstone, and the whirlwind festival of Open Court. It was nothing if not a baptism of fire.

“It was certainly demystified in no small way,” Bennett admits, agreeing that there is a potentially intimidating aspect to the building’s status within modern British theatre. “It’s funny, though,” he goes on, “you go in being aware of all the history … and it feels like it’s very important to acknowledge the history, then kind of leave it at the door, as it were, and see what’s happening next.”

Despite the demystification, Bennett clearly still holds a fierce affection for the theatre and the projects he worked on during his time there, which ranged from directing a production that toured around schools to being right in the thick of Open Court. “I’d always admired, respected, loved the theatre,” he says, “but what never ceases to amaze me about the building – and this is proper gushy – is how uncynical it is, how uncynical a place to work it is. It is all about trying to create the most interesting, most urgent, most exciting plays, and they’re a very cohesive bunch who all are pulling in the same direction.”

Open Court, the summer festival during which Featherstone handed the keys to the theatre’s writers and the building hosted a staggering range of different events, was clearly a highlight for Bennett. “It was amazing to be going from rehearsing one weekly rep and putting that into tech, and then starting that day on the next weekly rep, and working with a really versatile, exciting rep company of actors. It felt like with Open Court we discovered a lot about what direction the theatre was going to go in from then onwards.”

It was during Open Court that Bennett and I first met, while he was assisting on Anthony Neilson’s Collaboration project. Neilson too was an important feature of Bennett’s time at the Court; as well as being involved with Collaboration, he assisted earlier in the year on Narrative. Neilson’s process, which involves working closely with actors while developing a new play, is one that fascinates both of us. We discuss the openness of his rehearsal room, in which Bennett says “play and curiosity become part of the lifeblood of the room”, and the trust he places in both the actors and the collaborative process.

“What I got from Anthony that I thought was amazing was his perseverance in exploration, rather than immediately wanting to get results then and there,” Bennett tells me. “So if it wasn’t ready, it wasn’t ready; we’d just keep exploring, keep going and keep trying out different things.” This closely tallies with my own experience of Neilson’s rehearsal room, where ideas were gently pushed in new directions and input was welcomed from all directions. “Simply, he creates a non-hierarchical room, and then you get such surprising results.”

Bennett’s year at the Royal Court followed hot on the heels of his explosive revival of Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur at the Old Red Lion, a show that was 2012’s unexpected hit of the fringe. When I mention that the production with which Bennett made his breakthrough was almost two years ago, he shakes his head in smiling disbelief. He is still a little disbelieving, too, about the show’s success; “we were really, really surprised,” he says of the overnight impact it made. Fuelled by astonishing word of mouth, Mercury Fur quickly sold out at the Old Red Lion, earning itself a transfer to Trafalgar Studios that same summer.

Ridley’s play is set in a dystopian near future, where London is a lawless wasteland and addictive hallucinogenic butterflies are eroding the memories of those still scratching out a living. Bennett’s startling, visceral production for Greenhouse Theatre Company created an electric charge in the tightly packed space of the Old Red Lion, drawing out both the play’s infamous power to shock and the surprising humanity of its characters and their love for one another.

“I was just so struck by the relationship between the two brothers, Elliot and Darren, and this big question of what would you do for those that you love,” Bennett says, getting right to the heart of his interpretation. He describes Mercury Fur as a “modern masterpiece”, explaining that when he was given the script to read by Greenhouse’s Henry Lewis and Joel Samuels it immediately became his favourite play. Even with this faith in the material, however, he was blown away by the response it received. Bennett attributes some of this to the production’s appearance in the wake of the 2011 riots, which lent Ridley’s play a haunting prescience, but he is clear that his version did not set out to make this connection. For Bennett, it was all about the characters.

It is character once again that has attracted Bennett to Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts, the UK premiere of which he is currently directing at the Southwark Playhouse. It is being presented by the same company behind Mercury Fur, who have newly reinvented themselves as The Trick. Bennett is a “huge fan” of Letts and is excited to get his hands on this script. “I always found that his writing – as with Ridley – has such a visceral complexity to it,” he explains the fascination.

Superior Donuts is set in a donut shop in Chicago, telling the story of the man who runs it and the people who pass through every day. “You’ve got these nine fantastic characters, aged 21 to 72, all endowed with such depth and humanity,” says Bennett. “I found it profoundly moving and hugely optimistic. It just felt like the right play to do, and it couldn’t be more different from Mercury Fur.”

While Bennett describes the play as a “naturalistic piece”, he is interested in ways of pushing that naturalism in his production. “We didn’t just want to build a donut shop,” he explains. “The brilliant Fly Davies has come up with an incredible design that allows us to represent the off-stage world in a non-literal way in the space.” He quickly adds that they are “not doing some big expressionistic production of it”, but it is clear that his production hopes to test what can be done within an ostensibly naturalistic framework.

When I ask how Bennett feels about naturalism as a director, he wrestles a little with the question. Referring to projects such as Narrative, which clearly departed from naturalism, he suggests that his own position is somewhat ambivalent, before adding, “I don’t think there is an either/or”. We end up discussing Secret Theatre, which offers an intriguing marriage of a more naturalistic, character-based British tradition with continental influences that are less interested in realistic representation.

“One of my biggest interests is definitely character,” Bennett says, “but I think – as things like Secret Theatre’s Streetcar showed – you can still create, represent, express amazing characters, but not necessarily be pinned down to some kind of naturalistic context. I sort of feel like I’m just exploring what that means.” For now, he is happy to remain on the fence and keep exploring.

Photo: Ben Broomfield.