Monday 28 September 2015


Temporary Theatre, National Theatre, London
26th September 2015, matinee

Play of the decade. Unique. Changes the way that plays are made. These are some of the claims that made me want to see Alistair McDowall’s Pomona, currently on at the National Theatre after a triumphant run at Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre last year. The play shook up the theatre’s artistic programme after Sam Walters left his 40 year tenure as AD. I’m not sure it is the best play of the decade – I find that I’m more into punk plays at the moment (Prog or punk article)! However, there is no doubt that Pomona is a mightily strong play, delivered in an impressive production by Ned Bennett.

I’ve been writing a lot about Jez Butterworth lately and so comparisons (for me) were inevitable. But there really was something about Pomona that reminded me of Butterworth: the emergence of the uncanny; the way they both afford their characters such humour; the violence. The tone of the last line even had rings of Parlour Song. I was also reminded of Sarah Daniels’ Masterpieces because of the references to snuff films. But you have to push for these comparisons and that’s because Pomona is nothing quite like other plays.

For a start, Pomona has one of the best opening scenes I’ve seen. But before that, we are welcomed into the theatre by the buzz of machinery, blinking strip lights and the sight of Zeppo sleeping, doing press ups and sparring on the stage. Then, we’re plunged into darkness before lights come up on Zeppo, joined by a girl, Ollie, whose sister has gone missing. We learn that Zeppo owns the city, including the marooned Pomona in the middle of the city, renting places out without getting involved. To not get involved, according to him, is the best option so he doesn’t find out how his city is being used. This first scene paints a bleak picture of contemporary life, McDowall introducing us into his dystopian world. After that we meet the people in and around Pomona. From Fay, who has run away from her partner and is working in a brothel, the workings of which she describes in detail, to Charlie who wants to cover everything in his own jizz. The scene where he tells Moe this fantasy is hilarious and provoked a brilliantly mixed reaction from an elderly couple in the front row: she with a look of disgust, he with a devilish smile! We do eventually find out what is happening underneath Pomona. But is this world one to which we also belong? McDowall cleverly merges the familiar with the unfamiliar, and the real with the fictional. References to Indiana Jones films and games of Dungeons and Dragons intersect scenes of brutal violence, the gritty unpleasantness of working in a brothel, and more silent moments where we hear stories about domestic abuse. Critique on the complications of over-the-phone banking, McDonald’s chicken nuggets and some brilliant ‘down to earth’ acting also keeps the setting grounded so that McDowall’s world is as unnervingly familiar as it disturbingly Other. There’s one part where Giles Thomas’ superb music is assisting the crescendo to an exciting moment in a game of Dungeons and Dragons, when the music stops and Charlie runs off wanting a wee break. It’s a stark reminder that we don’t quite know where McDowall places us.

There isn’t a single scene in the play that doesn’t grip you. Each character is well drawn and beautifully performed by the ensemble. The production and design are stunning. There is one moment where Charlie is being beaten up and the movement and lighting work so well together before Zeppo splatters some blood over the stage from a McDonald’s cup and the grill in the centre starts pushing blood up under Charlie’s body. It’s compelling.

Pomona is a contemporary urban gothic which is funny yet sinister.

Pomona runs at the Temporary Theatre at the National Theatre until 10th October

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