9 December 2014

Pomona at the Orange Tree suggested a welcome change of direction

Pomona sounded exactly like the sort of play that I wanted the Orange Tree to do but by the time that I got around to seeing it, in the last week of its run, I was a little worried because I had read so much good feedback on it on Twitter that my expectations were being raised too high.

My expectations were also set by the promotion picture as I know about Lovecraft's part-Octopus daemon Cthulhu.

In the end my expectations possibly were too high but that is not to belittle the achievement of the play.

That needs putting in some context. Being simplistic to make the point, the Orange Tree was known for discovering plays from between the wars and while there have been a lot of very good plays over the many years that I have been going there, they could be categorised as "period" and "safe". They also tended to attract the sort of audience where, at 57, I stood out as being young. There is nothing wrong with any of that but I prefer edgy modern drama and for that I went to places like the Arcola which also attracted younger punters. So anything that looked as though it was bringing Dalston to Richmond was good news as far as I was concerned.

Richmond is not Dalston yet and the Orange Tree lacked the friendly bar space of the Arcola (or Bush or Southwark, etc.) so there was no point arriving much before the start of the play. On this occasion I got to the theatre about fifteen minutes before the start and only had to wait a short while before being let in to the theatre.

I was back in my usual seat (now numbered A25) which had stopped being a bench and had become a canvass chair for this production. The stage had changed substantially too and the raised platform used in the first two productions in the season had become a pit. That had not been thought through properly and I was glad that I was in the front row as the view from the second was somewhat obscured by the people in the first. That is why raised stages are used.

The play was deliberately complex but not bewilderingly so and there was a simple story at its heart.

The main complication came from the fragmented sequencing that meant we saw consequences before actions and it took a while for enough of the pieces of the puzzle to be shown for the bigger picture to be revealed.

In that bigger picture was a Rooster Byron character in a JG Ballard world (Concrete Island to be specific) where mysterious and foul deeds were taking place. The play was (mostly) about what those deeds were and who was responsible for them. Leading to the conclusion was a missing woman and the sister looking for her.

The path was strewn with strong women (not that the men were bad) and I was most impressed with the ridiculously young looking Sarah Middleton as a young lady looking for a partner, Cthulhu, and a criminal mastermind or all three or none of these. I also liked Rebecca Humphries as the prostitute with a heart of gold and Grace Thurgood as the woman stuck in the middle of things she did not quite understand or was not able to control.

The play's quick scenes were well choreographed and that is what gave the play its biggest impact as the pit became various locations and the reasonably sized cast moved quickly, easily and rhythmically   across, through and around it.

The Lovecraft angle worried me a little. I'm not sure why it was there as he was fringe at the best of times so I think it was a fair bet that most of the people there had not heard of Cthulhu and it was more confusing when the Rooster character appeared dressed as a penguin (which was appropriate) but claimed to be a seagull. I was not sure if this was the actor's mistake of the author being remarkably obtuse. Either way it did not work.

A lot of things did work though and some of them worked very well. The play was engaging, stretching and while the story ended there were still good questions still to ask. Always leave them wanting more they say and Pomona did.

In some ways Pomona was a bold and shocking new departure for the Orange Tree and one that I thoroughly approve of. It is also one that attracted a reassuringly young and full audience. I hope that they, and I, get to see more things like that as the new Orange Tree takes shape.

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