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In recent years, the Orange Tree may have acquired a reputation for decorously produced relics of Victorian and Edwardian theatre watched by an ageing audience inclined to nod off; not any more. Ned Bennett’s in-yer-face production of Alistair McDowall’s dystopian nightmare of a play is a screeching wake-up call to Richmond’s sleepy theatregoers. They may not like it very much, but Pomona is most definitely snooze-proof.

The very air threatens menace as you enter the normally cosy theatre in the round, aided by Giles Thomas’ eerie, jarring soundscape, and Elliot Griggs’ equally disconcerting lighting design, involving frenziedly flashing fluorescent tubes. This is light years away from the Orange Tree’s comfort zone.

The setting is a bleak, anonymous no-man’s land, where a creepy-looking guy in his underwear, stuffing his face with chicken nuggets, is ranting at a nervous girl who says she is looking for her missing sister.

We are propelled into a sleazy urban subculture of muggings, prostitution, contract killing and snuff videos, in a series of seemingly disconnected scenes, some violent, some funny peculiar and ha ha, others frankly unfathomable. Are girls being abducted by the makers of porn or snuff movies, or is there some other, equally sinister, transaction going on?

Allusions to video games and graphic novels seemed to strike a chord with younger people in the audience. Whatever your reaction to Pomona – mine was ambivalent at best – there is no question that 27-year-old McDowall is breaking new theatrical ground in a way that connects viscerally with the Facebook generation. Once word gets around, Pomona will surely attract a much-needed younger audience to the Orange Tree.

Verdict: Unlikeable and discomforting new play, yet nobody is going to be nodding off while Alistair McDowall is in charge

Nick Smurthwaite

  • Orange Tree Theatre, London
  • November 12-December 13, PN November 14
  • Author: Alistair McDowall
  • Director: Ned Bennett
  • Design: Georgia Lowe set, Elliot Griggs lighting, Giles Thomas sound
  • Technical: Polly Bennett movement, Pam Donald fight director, Stuart Burgess production manager, Juliet Horsley casting
  • Cast: Guy Rhys, Nadia Clifford, Rebecca Humphries, Sarah Middleton, Grace Thurgood, Sean Rigby, Sam Swann
  • Producer: Orange Tree Theatre
  • Running time: 1hr 45mins no interval

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Unlikeable and discomforting new play, yet nobody is going to be nodding off while Alistair McDowall is in charge

Nick Smurthwaite
Nick Smurthwaite has been writing about the performing arts for The Stage and other leading publications for more than 30 years.