REVIEW: Pomona by Alistair McDowall

The cast of Pomona
Photo: Teresa Noble

“Moss and lichen carpet the corners of cracked paving along the periphery of the site, and all around Pomona is a defiant hive of life that has thrived on the urban decay that came before.”

In the space where Salford, Trafford and Manchester meet, there’s an island that was once home to thriving docks; it now sits overgrown, graffitied and abandoned.

In Alistair McDowall’s 2014 play, Pomona, after the island, itself named for the Roman goddess of fruit trees, it is owned by a man named Zeppo and guarded by a man named Charlie. And that urban decay attracts a variety of other characters from the fringes of Manchester society.

Ollie comes to the city looking for her sister, but the truth of what has happened to her becomes more and more unclear the closer Ollie gets to the centre of the story. And the audience is kept off balance by the shifting narrative focus and slippery characters, all of whom are trying to cover their tracks and stay alive.

McDowall weaves together stories of shady factory owners, sex workers, a man who is trying to control the violence inside him and another who has a deep passion for H.P. Lovecraft. In the dark concrete box under the titular island, life is bleak and mysterious. One minute someone is recounting the final scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the next a man is stabbed and then a Lovecraftian horror is unleashed upon an unsuspecting role-playing gamer.

“You can’t be a good person anymore. There’s no such thing. There’s just people who are aware of the pain they’re causing, and people who aren’t aware.”

Most of the play is made up of two-hander scenes, slices of troubling, traumatic lives, that are always compelling. And sometimes sickening. Each moment feels almost banal until cracks begin to appear; violence is under the surface of nearly every encounter. It’s not always a threat of physical violence, though. Equally, the characters are confronted with psychological horror or emotional anguish.

Sometimes things change in an instant, by the roll of a dice.

Director Gary Abrahams has gathered an incredible cast and keeps them all on stage for most of the play’s running time. It creates an overwhelming tension having these actors circled around the characters we’re focused on at any minute; they stare, as the audience does, at the drama unfolding before them. The chorus of voyeurs are standing to close, staring too intently, embodying an uncaring city at the centre of an uncaring universe.

Jonathan Hindmarsh’s set is a graffiti and concrete and a tunnel that disappears into the darkness. Kelly Ryall’s soundscape gets under the skin and is deeply unsettling. Lisa Mibus’ lighting design illuminates and obscures in equal measure.

McDowall’s work drags its audience into a space it might never go, confronting people it might never meet. But actually, the play suggests, we do see these people and we do know these places, but we choose to ignore them because life is easier that way.

Pomona is grimy, distasteful and repulsive. Get down to Red Stitch and do not look away.