Mr Monkey caught a train into Manchester and scampered down to the Royal Exchange Theatre for the press night of Pomona.
In the 19th century, Mancunians seeking fresh air and greenery would take trips along the Irwell to the Pomona Gardens. Previously known as the Cornbrook Strawberry Gardens, Pomona Gardens was a 21 acre entertainment complex with gardens to walk in, a camera obscura, archery butts, and a palace which hosted horse shows, dog shows, Roman chariot races and many other amusements.
This all came to an end in 1887 when a nearby chemical factory (the industry of Manchester had expanded to surround Pomona) exploded and the Pomona was damaged in the conflagration. Instead of being repaired, the palace was demolished and the entire garden site was bought up to became part of the five Pomona docks serving the new Manchester Ship Canal.
The Pomona Docks closed in 1982; four docks were filled in, dock No. 3 became part of the lock connecting the Bridgewater Canal to the Manchester Ship Canal.
Now the Pomona site is a concrete island awaiting redevelopment, a wasteland viewed briefly from a Metrolink tram.
In Alastair McDowall's play, Pomona is a threatening hole in the centre of the soul of Manchester, a place no-one wants to go to and from which few return.
A young woman, Ollie, is looking for her sister who has gone missing somewhere in Manchester. Zeppo, a man who owns most of Manchester but has no trousers, tells her that her sister has probably gone to Pomona and that it would be a very, very bad idea indeed to go there to look for her. Obviously, she doesn't listen to all of his advice, which leads to a series of strange encounters - sometimes presented out of chronological order - with a number of strange Mancunians. There's a pair of security men, Moe and Charlie, who guard the gate to Pomona, though Charlie is more interested in writing a role-playing game based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft. A sex worker, Fay, is on the run from her employer, Gale. Finally, there is the mysteriously uncommunicative Keaton, who becomes involved in Charlie's RPG.
The stage - which has to represent everything from a seedy office to somewhere undescribably horrible - is empty but for a hatch in the centre, with properties swiftly moved on and off as needed.
Before and during the play there is a heavy and brooding industrial soundtrack, which Mr Monkey found atmospheric and oppressive. There are many blackouts and a fairly long use of strobe lighting.
The cast perform excellently, creating the different atmospheres at different locations, delivering stylised speech to great effect and taking the audience through the fast-paced game elements. Mr Monkey particularly enjoyed the compelling performance of Sarah Middleton as Keaton who portrayed both a coldness and vulnerability in the changing aspects of the character.
Pomona is a challenging play to watch. It has some unpleasant moments, the order of events can be puzzling and the subject matter is difficult yet thought-provoking. However the performance held the attention of the audience, was surprisingly funny at times (particularly to those familiar with role-playing games) and provided conversation well after the final blackout.Pomona runs until 21st November 2015. Useful links :
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Copyright Rik Shepherd and Mr Monkey.