Note to self: British writer Alistair McDowall’s play Pomona is a lot of things, but it’s not ideal reading material for a plane trip.
“I first read it on a plane to Western Australia,” says Anthony Skuse, who is directing the play’s Sydney premiere at Kings Cross Theatre for Secret House Productions.
“I found it really unsettling and then there was a moment – a completely unexpected moment of tenderness – that took me by surprise so much that it made me cry.”
Commissioned by The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama for an in-house show in 2014, Pomona went on to critically acclaimed seasons at The Gate Theatre and the Orange Tree Theatre in London. It then transferred to the National Theatre and the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, in Autumn 2015.
The play’s connection to Wales is what initially caught co-producer and performer Jane Angharad’s eye. Born there, she champions plays with a connection to her beloved Cymru.
“Mostly, though, we chose it because it’s an amazing play,” Angharad says. “It’s so different from anything we’ve read before.”
Stranger Things meets Black Mirror
Co-producer and cast member James Smithers was just as quickly hooked. “The thing that really jumped out for me was the kind of ideas Alistair brings in. You don’t see elements of science fiction and horror very often in the theatre. It’s more like something you’d see on Netflix.”
McDowall, Smithers adds, has spoken about the influence of Anime, cartoons, sci-fi horror writer H.P. Lovecraft (whose fictional cosmic entity Cthulu makes an appearance in Pomona) and early silent comedies on his writing.
Angharad sees that as a plus.
Pomona has the potential to appeal to an audience for whom theatre-going is not a priority, she believes. “There are a lot of elements in the story that are similar to video gaming, horror movies and role-playing games. I’ve described it to people as Stranger Things meets Black Mirror.”
Angharad has also dipped a toe into the world of Dungeons & Dragons. “I’ve joined a D&D Facebook group and I’m learning about the game. I’d love to get some D&D players in to see the show.”
Like a film
The focus of McDowall’s story is Ollie, a young woman searching for her missing twin. All the clues in what is an episodic, non-chronological story lead her to Pomona, a desolate island at the heart of the city.
“What I didn’t know until I started researching the piece is that Pomona is an actual place,” says Skuse. “It’s an island, right in the middle of Manchester [UK], that was set up as a botanical garden in the late 19th century. It was named for the Roman goddess of abundance and harvest. It became derelict but you can still visit it. There’s even a train station there. As McDowall says, at Pomona, no one gets off the train and no one gets on.”
Skuse’s production, which features Angharad and Smithers alongside Kevin Batliwala, Monica Sayers, Lauren Richardson, Amanda McGregor, Dorje Swallow, will be a filmic one, with evocative lighting by Veronique Benett and a soundtrack by Nate Edmondson.
Audience in on the game
“Pomona has a fractured chronology but McDowall wrote the piece in the order it’s presented, actually discovering the story as he went,” explain Skuse. “So there’s something of that choose-you-own-adventure feel to it. And it’s very much a thriller. In his notes, McDowall says the actors enter the space with the audience and don’t leave the space. There’s a sense of everyone being involved in a game and that lovely awareness that the audience is part of making this thing happen. Everyone is responsible for conjuring up an image of Pomona.
“I think people will love it because you have to work out the puzzle of the play,” Skuse says. “For example, is there one girl named Ollie, or two. Or three? But there are deeper levels to it, as well: existential questions about how we move through the world, and find hope in a world that is so seemingly hopeless? I don’t want to give too much away about the play but everything that happens in the story is happening somewhere right now. The anxieties at the heart of the story are the ones we all feel.”
Secret House Productions is a relative newcomer to the Sydney scene. Founded in 2015, its focus is moving from finding fresh angles on theatrical classics – Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline and Troilus & Cressida, Chekov’s The Seagull (Chayka Seagull) and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment) – and toward 21st century works.
Most recently, the company produced the Australian premiere of Cardiff-born playwright Katherine Chandler’s Bird at the Old Fitzroy Theatre.
“We always look for plays that are unique and excite us in some way, that we feel an audience will also be excited about,” says Angharad. “We’re interested in stories that aren’t being told anywhere else.”
Pomona plays at Kings Cross Theatre, from January 24