Review: Pomona, National Theatre ‘Brutal, Pessimistic, Brilliant’

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Pomona may well be the most original piece of theatre I’ve ever seen. This dark, traumatic play about those living, often unseen and unheard, in the margins of society, remains elusive, even a little obscure, even after the lights rise up. But it poses tough questions about when we get involved with those needing our help. And when we look away.

Ollie (Nadia Clifford) needs help. Her sister is missing. She’s been missing a while but Ollie hasn’t got a clue where she is, which is why when we meet her she is begging for help from a curious man, Zeppo, (Guy Rhys) who brags and boasts as he swaggers around in his y-fronts, shades and parka jacket.

Zeppo’s a fixer. He knows people. That’s what Ollie has been told. He knows everyone and everything. And he does. Zeppo doesn’t deny it. But that’s not the same as wanting to share that information.

“A lot of people are going missing.” That’s what Zeppo says. But he doesn’t want to get involved. Keep your nose clean, don’t ask questions – that’s how Zeppo survives and he advises Ollie to do the same. But she won’t have it. She has to find her sister. Ollie refuses to look away.

Pomona by Alistair McDowall Presented by the Orange Tree Theatre, in association with the National Theatre and the Royal Exchange Theatre Photo Credit: ©Richard Davenport 2015, Richard@rwdavenport.co.uk, 07545642134

It’s good stuff. It grips you right from the off, this first scene. And the design from Georgia Lowe is evocative. This is a dark grimy world – drains frame the stage floor and the floor of this pit is filthy dirty.

But there, in the middle of this back and forth between Zeppo and Ollie, sits a curious figure. A person in a brilliantly cream dress and brilliantly gold trainers. A person with a squid head. A person with a squid head who can only be satiated by a never-ending supply of 20-sided dice – dice closely associated with role playing games, with Dungeons and Dragons.

Nothing here is at it seems. Nothing at all. The walls between fantasy and reality are pretty porous here. This grim subterranean world could be real, could be fiction. It could be a dystopian near-future, it could be happening now right beneath our feet. Who knows?

As Ollie starts her search for her sister, the story plays out in a series of non-linear scenes. Everything is just that little bit off-kilter. Unheralded characters suddenly appear in, seemingly, unrelated plots – a couple of security guards looking after, well, they don’t know what; a new joiner being showed to her allocated room at a brothel; a woman covered with dirt, clutching a laptop, desperately on the run from whoever is chasing her….

Pomona by Alistair McDowall Presented by the Orange Tree Theatre, in association with the National Theatre and the Royal Exchange Theatre Photo Credit: ©Richard Davenport 2015, Richard@rwdavenport.co.uk, 07545642134

Your mind races, trying to piece these fragments together. A terrible world is being revealed in front of your eyes and all of it is hung together by this fascinating mystery of what the hell has happened to Ollie’s sister.

Yet even at its bleakest, this play can be wickedly funny. The darkness is shot through with moments of real humour. Yet it’s not misplaced. The humour is enough and appropriate, and never detracts from the dark heart of this play.

Much is revealed as the play unravels, but not everything. There’s a sense that parts of this world remain elusive even to the playwright, Alistair McDowell. But this is impressive writing. The staging from director Ned Bennett is exciting and brilliant, with bursts of energy framing those scenes that slowly, carefully, reveal more. The writing and directing are in perfect harmony here. Perfect.

And each actor in this cast deserves a standing o. Each of them is superb.

Pomona by Alistair McDowall Presented by the Orange Tree Theatre, in association with the National Theatre and the Royal Exchange Theatre Photo Credit: ©Richard Davenport 2015, Richard@rwdavenport.co.uk, 07545642134

The play has a strobe light warning but it’s worth pointing out that it should probably also come with a content warning on domestic violence, violence and rape. If these are trigger issues for you, I’d think carefully about going to see Pomona. Such is the writing, directing and acting, these issues are dealt with tactfully, but powerfully and painfully.

But for everyone else, go see Pomona. Go see Pomona. And I say it again, go see Pomona. It’s extraordinary. It’s brutal, pessimistic but unequivocally brilliant.

National Theatre, London to October 10, 2015

Presented by the Orange Tree Theatre, in association with the National Theatre and the Royal Exchange Theatre.

Image Credits:

  1. Sarah Middleton (Keaton) in Pomona by Alistair McDowell, directed by Ned Bennett. Photograph by Richard Davenport.
  2. Guy Rhys (Zeppo) in Pomona by Alistair McDowell, directed by Ned Bennett. Photograph by Richard Davenport.
  3. l-r Rebecca Humphries (Fay) and Sarah Middleton (Keaton) in Pomona by Alistair McDowell, directed by Ned Bennett. Photograph by Richard Davenport.
  4. l-r Sean Rigby (Moe) and Sam Swann (Charlie) in Pomona by Alistair McDowell, directed by Ned Bennett. Photograph by Richard Davenport.

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