By Scott Hurley
There was an unmistakable sense of menace as I walked into the Black Box Theatre at the University of York’s department of theatre, film and television.
The usually benign space has been transformed into a dystopian amphitheatre; a concrete pit is set beneath the audience as the cast stand, motionless, gazing into the distance. The show is writer Alistair McDowall’s biggest success: after playing various London theatres it was shown at both the National Theatre and the Royal Exchange.
The story is, on the face of it, very simple. Ollie searches for her sister and is told by real estate tycoon Zeppo that the disappearance may have something to do with the abandoned piece of dockland known as Pomona. The play then becomes a revolving door of characters and scenes which begin to reveal the secret beneath Pomona’s concrete exterior.
Set designers Megan Bailey and Natasha Dawson have created a simple, brutalist container for the crucible of action to simmer. It’s a back-to-basics design that facilitates the play successfully, and is appropriately matched by work from lighting designers Fraser Jordan and Falmata Lawan, and sound designers Amy Wilson and Archie Parker (whose work I so enjoyed in his verbatim theatre project earlier this year). Theatre often runs the risk of over-using flashy effects and gimmicky design, but everything here is simple and supportive: it’s here to facilitate, not to star.
And it’s interesting too that this is an ensemble cast, although the play starts with Ollie and Zeppo (Serena Brymer and Chris Casbon) it could easily be about any of its eclectic cast, each person their own piece of the puzzle. All the actors were intelligently cast and all turned out strong performances, although I must mention a stand out turn by Joseph Hayes who plays the creepy, yet oddly personable Charlie. I was slightly confused, however, as to why a play set in Manchester was totally devoid of the appropriate accents.
Theatre often runs the risk of over-using flashy effects and gimmicky design, but everything here is simple and supportive: it’s here to facilitate, not to star.
I am traditionally skeptical of movement direction (not that I don’t appreciate the craft) but it so often fails to really serve the story. So it was a pleasant surprise that Megan Davies’ work in this regard turned out to be one of the highlights: both a fight early on in the play and a maze navigated towards the end are intense, exciting, and completely support the story as the other elements of the show do.
It’s a shame then, that the script being served by the show’s practitioners fails to hit the mark. The story underneath is intriguing, but McDowall smothers it with unnecessary anecdotes and preachy statements. Worse still, he insists on having characters repeat the dialogue of those who have spoken previously (rendering dialogue that echoes like this, “I’m going to the zoo.” “The Zoo?” “Yes.” “Why are you going?” “Where?” “To the zoo” etc), which feels like it doubles the runtime. In some ways the non-chronological nature of the script really works, but so much of the dialogue threw off the show’s pacing in a way that the cast and crew simply could not rectify.
Having said that, Finlay and Bolwell have directed a play that, though I was never scared, is oozing with atmosphere and unites its cast and crew in an ensemble which worked so hard to uphold a script which, quite frankly, did not deserve them.
Pomona is running in repertoire with The Wonderful World of Dissocia as part of assessed work on the BA Theatre: Writing, Directing and Performance programme. Tickets are available online and at the TFTV foyer.