Tuesday 21 August 2018

Theatre Review: Pomona at theSpace Triplex, Edinburgh

'Everything bad is real': in the darkly disturbing world of Alistair McDowall's Pomona, where time is fractured and reality blurred, this is one route to distinguishing truth from role play.

This dystopian thriller caused something of a stir when it was first staged in 2014. Originally commissioned by the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, it transferred from Richmond's Orange Tree to the National Theatre and was named as one of Lyn Gardner's Top 10 picks of that year.

Now, following a sellout run in their home city, University of Manchester's HiveMCR have brought their production of Pomona, co-directed by Tom Thacker and Kwame Owusu, to the Fringe.

The story begins with a vulnerable young girl Ollie (Imogen Hayes) looking for her missing twin. In the course of her search, Ollie learns of Pomona, a deserted island in the heart of Manchester with a ring road running around it. Vans deliver daily through closely guarded gates, but their cargo is a mystery. The city's seedy underbelly is revealed in the lives of sex workers, those who seek their custom and those who profit from them.

Against a simple black backdrop with only a chalk circle and minimal props - aside from a monstrous octopus head - Thacker and Owusu skilfully build momentum with moments when the pieces of the puzzle almost seem to fit, juxtaposed with scenes that blow any sense of linear narrative wide apart. Is there a deeper exploitation taking place, a sinister cult intent on wreaking havoc, or is this all part of a role play game based on horror stories, devised by a geeky security guard in an effort to win friends?

There are strong performances across the board from the talented and committed student cast: I have to declare an interest as my daughter is one of them. Christopher Stoops is outstanding in the central role of unlikely security guard Charlie, full of an amenable puppy-like enthusiasm for fantasy and gaming - a naivety that belies a darker core.

Every character exudes desperation, some more immediately obvious than others. One of the many strengths of McDowall's fluid construct is that each character has their own story arc or, more accurately, existential loop they must circle. It's the points at which they intersect that become compelling. Even the bleakest of characters has a moral code they've failed to live by: Sam Whitehouse's conflicted henchman Moe's moment of redemption with Grainne Flynn's warm-hearted, damaged sex worker Fay is particularly affecting.

This production mines the work's moments of comedy, though it is of the bleakest kind, and you may need to give yourself permission to laugh. McDowall's worldview is unsettlingly pessimistic, but always prescient, taking in the information-rich 24-hour onslaught of popular culture, the facts we choose to act on and those we decide to ignore. Pomona is never short of gripping  - a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma (as Churchill once said of Russia), yet truly a parable for our times.

Pomona is at theSpace Triplex Studio, Venue 38, Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 25 August 2018, tickets are available here

Wednesday 8 August 2018

Theatre Review: Birdsong at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for the British Theatre Guide

The First World War novel Birdsong - written by Sebastian Faulks in 1993 - is composed of such densely descriptive prose and nuanced storytelling that it’s difficult to imagine this complexity being transferred to the stage. And yet Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation, rewritten after an initial spell in the West End in 2010, poignantly captures the book’s essence as it tours again to commemorate the centenary of the end of the Great War.

Rather than follow Faulks’s chronology, Wagstaff begins in the mud and squalor of the trenches in 1916, just before the Battle of the Somme. Lieutenant Stephen Wraysford (Tom Kay) is already emotionally ravaged, hollowed out by the horrors he has endured. His pre-war love affair with Isabelle Azaire (Madeleine Knight), beautiful young wife of a cruel factory owner, is conveyed by a series of flashbacks.

Charlotte Peters, now replacing Alastair Whatley as director, navigates a fine line between past and present, delving into the turbulent unfurling of illicit passion. Though well crafted, there are so many transitions that, for a time, Wraysford’s current gruesome predicament and the developing story of the soldiers in his charge are overlooked. Perhaps Kay’s portrayal of a tortured and complicated man is emotionally repressed for too long, without even a flicker to convey the feeling beneath, but his transformation in the final scenes is compelling.

Knight’s Isabelle convinces in her evolution from initial wariness of Wraysford’s wooing to the giddiness of overwhelming love. Later, she embodies the suffering of those left behind; damaged and compromising as she must to survive, she retains a dignity and determination to follow her chosen path.

It would be impossible to recreate the whole of the novel and ridiculous even to try. Some aspects of the story seem too curtailed; Wraysford’s encounter with a prostitute, though shocking, takes too little time to build. And layers have been lost, there’s no direct link between events of the early 20th century and the present day, though there are hints.

Wraysford’s life becomes unexpectedly intertwined with that of Sapper Jack Firebrace (Tim Treloar), an expert tunneller who in peacetime helped build the London Underground. Though working in conditions even more hellish than those of the trenches and denied leave to visit his desperately ill young son, Firebrace retains his humour and humanity. Treloar’s portrayal brings real emotional heart and heft to Firebrace’s close bond with fellow tunneller Arthur Shaw (Simon Lloyd), his care for others in his regiment and growing regard for his commanding officer.

Victoria Spearing’s set evokes the nightmare with barbed wire entanglements towering above the confines of cramped tunnels below. It combines with plaintive violin and song and last letters home to loved ones, interspersed with the shocking staccato flashes and booms of exploding shells, to become a deeply affecting backdrop to the devastation being played out.

This stage adaptation of Birdsong brings a Journey’s End sensibility to the meaninglessness of mass slaughter. As faith is lost, the final scenes trapped in the virtual darkness of the underground tunnels are almost unbearably moving; the suffering of millions condensed into the very personal tragedy of two wholly different men yoked together by fate.

Reviewed on 10 July 2018 | Images: Jack Ladenburg