Red Stitch’s production of Alastair McDowell’s Pomona is much like a roller coaster, you might not know what’s coming around the next bend, but the ride is a hell of a rush. The experience begins before the audience takes its seats, a smoke haze fills the tunnel-like entrance to the theatre space, the cast, engaged in seemingly random acts on a littered, filthy stage, a throbbing beat evoking a rapidly beating heart. Strap yourself in.

Pomona, the place, is an abandoned island in the centre of a city, visited only by mysterious trucks. It is also a metaphor, for all the things we prefer to look away from as we go about our daily lives. And it is a warning; against paying too much attention, about getting involved. Seek, and you may not like what you find.

Pomona the play, begins with a search. Ollie’s sister has disappeared, and she seeks the help of the all-knowing Zeppo, who drives the city’s ring road each night, watching over his domain. He owns most of the city, but as he explains, owning everything does not mean getting involved in everything. Feasting on Chicken McNuggets, he chooses not to enquire how they are made, arguing for selective education as the key to surviving modern life. And yet, he points Ollie to Pomona, a place that comes up often he says, in conversations about people disappearing. It’s a great opening scene, and a riveting monologue from Dion Mills as Zeppo, that sets the surreal tone of the performance

Then, just when you think you think you might have your grip, the narrative fragments, and slams into reverse. The consequences of events play out before the events themselves, and we discover the players, how they touch and are touched by the horrors that exist in the depths of Pomona. The story evolves rather than is told, and even after all the pieces are placed on the table, they don’t quite fit together. Does Ollie even have a sister?

It is testament to McDowell’s writing that his opaque structure intrigues, rather than confounds. He presents a bleak view of the world, but the horror is finely balanced with humour, and his pointed reflections on modern society, don’t overtake the storytelling. Into this urban dystopia, he has launched a raft of odd souls, who are armed with some terrific dialogue, but in one of my few criticisms of the play, seem to be relatively thinly drawn. That said, director Gary Abrahams and the cast have done a great job putting flesh onto their intriguing bones.

The cast remain on stage throughout, which means in a space the size of Red Stitch, that they are never more than a few steps away from the action. This onstage presence proves to be a powerful piece of the performance, an active voyeurism that ranges from glowering menace to mild curiosity. While clearly linked to Pomona’s central theme, it also suggests a question; is this really happening, or is it all just a game of Dungeons & Dragons? A theory given weight by several scenes in which the cast worked in chorus, and the action advanced through role playing choices.

The Dungeon master is Charlie, a young, security guard working the gate at Pomona. Inspired by the horror writer HP Lovecraft, he has created his own Dungeons & Dragons story that weaves in and out of the narrative. We are introduced to Charlie as he is drawn into a bloody fight by his fellow security guard, Moe. It is a terrific performance from both Nicholas Denton and Arthur Angel; we don’t yet know who they are, or why they fight, but they deliver an emotionally bruising scene. This script demands some full throttle acting from its cast and they deliver. Another early memorable scene comes from Julia Grace, as brothel owner Gale, in a seething mix of fury, fear and hilarity as she faces what may be her fate.

In complement to the performances, the staging is top notch. Set design was lean and effective; a foreshortened stage gave depth to create the illusion of a tunnel leading to Pomona’s underground vaults. Makeup and special effects were also excellent, particularly in the fight scene, but also in atmospheric moments, the dankness of underground evoked in the slow seeping of water from the central grate. But it was the sound design that most impressed, with a soundscape that ranged from faint background ticking to throbbing beats, leading each change in scene tempo, mood and tension.

Pomona is not for the faint hearted and Abrahams has embraced the visceral, gritty quality of the script, with some introductory on-stage urination that may or may not add to your appreciation, but clearly signals what you’re in for. If you squirm at the mention of bodily fluids, for example, you definitely will not appreciate a very funny, but extended contemplation on the power of jizz. This production demands your attention; you might not want to watch, but you can’t look away.

Pomona is real. It exists, as described by Zeppo, in Manchester, UK. The ring road in question is Manchester’s M60. The cast performs with accents and there is a bit of unevenness although not to the detriment of the piece. However, it begs the question, when so much of Pomona is smoke and mirrors, and speaks to broader questions about modern society, why it was felt necessary. The idea of Pomona, the possibility of Pomona could exist anywhere.

Bottom line. This is a night at the theatre that you won’t regret. Go to Pomona.

Images: Teresa Noble