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Pomona (NT Temporary Theatre)

This gripping and deeply unsettling tale of inner-city lowlife is a sensory and dramatic triumph

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Sarah Middleton (Keaton) in Pomona
© Richard Davenport

Pomona sounds as though it should be something to do with a pleasant apple-flavoured drink. But in Alistair McDowall's dystopian vision of Manchester's dark side, it's an evil place at the epicentre of some of the darkest and most disturbing fantasies imaginable.

Ollie, a young woman (Nadia Clifford) is looking for her twin sister who's disappeared, and her search leads her to join a baffling and sinister game of chance where neither she - nor anyone else - is entirely sure where truth and reality cross into the netherworld of role-play gaming.

Originally commissioned and first performed by Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in collaboration with the Royal Court Theatre, Pomona was produced by the Orange Tree Theatre in 2014 before its current run at the NT's Temporary Theatre.

This is a visually stunning and thoroughly unsettling production, combining great design from Georgia Lowe, a rumbling, tension-laden score and sound design from Giles Thomas, and razor-sharp direction by Ned Bennett. He's aided by movement director Polly Bennett who has choreographed chases, desperate dashes and journeys into the underworld with great clarity. Fight director Pamela Donald's beefy punch-ups are also given extra force by the work of lighting designer Elliot Griggs.

Guy Rhys kicks off the action and seizes the initiative with a terrific monologue, managing to radiate uber-landlord Zeppo's swagger and confidence despite being clad only in dirty, bloodstained undies and a greasy old anorak.

Sam Swann also excels as the feckless and friendless Charlie, who loves Dungeons and Dragons and wants to be a good person, while turning a blind eye to the grisly business he is employed to protect, alongside reluctant murderer Moe, played with stolid assurance by Sean Rigby.

The elfin Keaton - Sarah Middleton - has an ethereal quality that belies her true nature, while brutal Gale, Rochelle Sandall, crumbles when she loses her place in the pecking order.

As prostitute Fay, Rebecca Humphries communicates the dread and desperation that lie behind this career path. Violence and the sexual exploitation of women is an ongoing theme that's explored with perhaps too much careful attention to detail - and the revelation of what does actually go on in the underground chambers only reinforces that. But none of the villains escape unscathed in this ghastly game.

There are echoes of Sartre's 'Hell is other people' in the closing scenes, and the action slows and stutters a little, but this is one way to bring the audience down from the intensity of the show, which is a triumph for this riveting cast.

Pomona is at the NT Temporary Theatre until 10 October