Ever since rave reviews greeted Pomona when it premiered at the Orange Tree, I had cursed myself for not summoning the energy to cross London to see a new play that promised dystopian terrors and whose advertising centred on a wonderfully striking image of a Cthulhu sitting cross-legged in an underground car park holding a Rubik’s cube. It certainly seemed a world away from the usual fare of star-led Shakespeare, earnest Russians and undemanding musicals.
Hearing that it had secured one of the prestigious slots in the Temporary Theatre, I placed it alongside People, Places and Things as top of the list of shows to see in the National’s latest season. Full credit for Rufus Norris’ bold booking, and for helping to develop a clear identity for Temporary Theatre space, which is becoming a stage where the National can take risks on young playwrights and emerging theatre companies, and represents precisely what they should be spending their public funding on. It attracts new and diverse audiences, and the arrival of Pomona had clearly resulted in an audience at least a couple of decades below the average age of regular National attendees.
I entered the theatre in a state of anticipation. I exited the theatre (with apologies to Rogers & Hart) baffled, bemused and bewildered. I wish I could say that it was due to the challenging questions that Alistair McDowell’s imaginative script had left me with. I was hoping that it would be because the genre mash-up that throws together RPGs, cinema, Lovecraft and an array of dystopian fiction writers had resulted in a brave new world of theatre.
Unfortunately my bafflement was more with every critic who had seen the workings of a profound masterpiece, whereas I felt more like I had seen a play written by a precocious undergraduate talent severely in need of a dramaturg. There is no doubting McDowell’s talent. It shines through at times, illuminating the suitably dim and dank surroundings. The story makes leaps of the imagination that suggest an elastic mind, and the telling of it is done with verve and wit.
Yet ultimately there are too many signs of a playwright in need of a firm editorial hand to justify the ecstatic reviews that greeted the play. The most obvious sign of inexperience is that the dialogue is filled with empty swearing. Rule 1 of all aspiring writers should be to justify each expletive. It’s not that you should worry about offending people, but because it is lazy device used as shorthand for emotional charge and gritty realism. Pomona is filled with swearing that takes up space where genuine fresh and exciting dialogue could be taking place and, following a bravura opening scene, I don’t doubt McDowell is capable of achieving it.
It begins with Guy Rhys’ surreal property magnate meeting Nadia Clifford’s increasingly lost Ollie, and this first scene is magnificently handled; it combines an overbearing tension with a genuinely funny set-piece centred on Indiana Jones. It grabs and holds the audience, and like all great thrillers it makes you desperate to know what will happen next, as well as being a clear marker of McDowell’s literate playfulness. Sadly around one hundred minutes later, it had become gruellingly clear that the world was substantially less coherent and interesting than the one Rhys’ Zeppo had introduced us to. Clearly a masterful storyteller, he managed to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes just as he did to Clifford’s Ollie.
The play is hindered rather than enhanced by being pulled in too many directions. It wants to include everything without ever quite seeming to know what to do with it all. A playwright shouldn’t feel bound to wrap things up neatly for the audience but it is crucial that they know the story that they want to tell, and that each scene has a role to play in telling that story. Throughout it felt like the different narratives were in competition and each had their own way of tying the story together. If the aim was to create a natural ambiguity, a sense that there are many ways to slip into this dystopian world, then I feel the result failed to match this ambition. What resulted was a confusion of explanations that struggled to carry a dramatic weight.
The other problem with telling multiple stories is that it rarely gave enough time to build convincing characters. When they were given room, the actors bought sharp definition to the roles; Rebecca Humphries gave us an impressive portrait of a vulnerable woman balancing a naturally tenderness with a steel edge sharpened through life experience, and Sam Swann was excellent as Charlie, a lad whose sweet nervousness masks a slippery duplicity as he slips into the darker fringes of the world. Yet most of the characters are paper-thin and lack grounding in the reality of the world.
One should not expect McDowell to present an entirely original world as dystopian fiction already covers so much ground, but it does need to find ways of presenting existing ideas in original ways. People who already know the genre will recognise ideas that have been more strongly developed by Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro. The grim, desolate urban landscapes could have come from China Meiville, Neil Gaiman or one of countless others. There is no problem with drawing inspiration from elsewhere, but ultimately Pomona struggles to define its own identity outside of its reference points, and that is a real problem.
I really wish I could have written a more positive review for Pomona, but ultimately I remain bewildered by how far I am from the critical consensus on this one.
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Read what other people thought about Pomona
In the interests of fairness, this blog’s thoughts about Pomona appears to be a minority opinion and below you can find a load of (largely) more positive reviews