Nov 22 2017 | By More

★★★☆☆    Mixed bag

Summerhall: Tues 21 – Sat 25 Nov 2017
Review by Hugh Simpson

Flirting with darkness, Theatre Paradok’s Pomona – at Summerhall until Saturday – is well performed, but ultimately more staid than it first appears.

Alistair McDowall’s 2014 play seems a natural fit for Paradok – a genre-bending, chronologically fractured piece which sees a young woman named Ollie venturing in search of her sister into the Pomona of the title, a forbidden and forbidding concrete island in the heart of Manchester where unspeakable things occur.

Eilidh Northridge. Pic: Andrew Perry.

Fuelled by science fiction, detective tales, H.P. Lovecraft, Dungeons and Dragons – and a movie obsession borne out by character names taken from golden age Hollywood comedy – the narrative does venture into some dark and decidedly adult areas.

However, apart from one piece of overt (and notably well choreographed) violence, much of the more worrying elements are merely discussed rather than shown. It is never as extreme, for example, as the works of Philip Ridley that have been a point of comparison. As presented here it does not have the same visceral impact as the original London production obviously did.

There are several reasons for this. The non-chronological nature of the narrative starts to seem tricksy for its own sake rather than illuminating, while the non-realistic elements, and hints that things may not be as they seem, undermine the narrative rather than adding to it.

What weakens the play most is that – unlike Ridley, Sarah Kane, or indeed a number of comedians who use shock tactics, McDowall has none of the hyped-up, almost preacher-like moralising that can add power to the hatefulness. Instead, the idea that life is a ‘cycle of shit’ is presented with little more than a cynical shrug or a vague tut-tutting.

relatively intriguing

Not so much amoral as fatally detached, the dialogue has precious little poetry and a lack of subsequent power; the characters are largely not very interesting and as a result the law of diminishing returns sets in before the end of a two-hour straight-through run.

Tom Hindle. Pic: Andrew Perry

The play remains relatively intriguing, however, and there are many good things about this production. The performances are uniformly sound, and several are considerably better than that. Tom Hindle has beautiful comic timing as geeky, reluctant hitman Charlie, and forms a memorable double act with Liam Bradbury’s Moe – although Bradbury is not quite as convincing when called upon to be a brooding, coiled spring of violence.

Eilidh Northridge is suitably compelling as the elusive Keaton, displaying admirably stillness, and doing mystery exceptionally well. Lauren Robinson (Ollie) also achieves an almost other-worldly strangeness. Abi Ahmadzadeh’s damaged sex worker Fay is extremely touching and human, providing a much needed moral centre.

Megan Lambie gives an otherwise appalling character enough fear and panic to make Gale seem human enough.

Oliver Beaumont, as Zeppo, who apparently owns Manchester, gets things off to a rip-roaring start with a paranoiac, freakish characterisation, gabbling away about Raiders of the Lost Ark and ‘not getting involved’ in admirable style.

taken too far

That gabbling, however, is taken too far at times, which is unfortunately representative of the production as a whole. The Demonstration Room at Summerhall is an excellent space, but does have form for being unforgiving of extremes of volume. That quieter moments are drowned out by the wind and rain battering the skylight can be forgiven – another problem that should have been avoided.

There are times when dialogue (and important dialogue at that) is chanted in chorus. A slight lack of synchronisation, coupled with over-exuberant loudness and the competing electronic sound, means that the words are simply impossible to make out.

What must be pointed out is that these moments are accompanied by co-ordinated movement – courtesy of Movement Director Madeleine Flint – that is utterly beyond reproach. Visually compelling and thoroughly exhilarating, these are the high points of the production and mean that the incomprehensibility of what is being said is soon forgotten.

Much of the direction, indeed, is praiseworthy, if occasionally erring towards the workaday. Tom Whiston’s handling of the cast and space is very fine, with the performers lurking ominously around the stage before and during the performance. This, indeed, is something that could have been turned up a notch.

Isambard Goodbody’s technical management is also accomplished; there are some simple but well-chosen lighting effects.

What promises to be a full-on, immersive horror dealing with power, oppression and 21st century cynicism ends up being much more conventional, but is well enough staged to be worthwhile.

Running time 2 hours (no interval)
Summerhall, 1 Summerhall, EH9 1PL
Tuesday 21 – Saturday 25 November 2017
Daily at 7.30 pm
Information and tickets: https://www.summerhall.co.uk/event/pomona/
Theatre Paradok Facebook: @TheatreParadok.

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