Pomona image by Manuel Harlan

Alistair McDowall

Alistair McDowall

Alistair McDowall is fidgety and nervous when we meet at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, where his play Pomona is about to open. He recently caused a stir with a Guardian article expressing his surprise at how rarely he feels theatre reflects the vast, interconnected world we live in. As I bring it up, he’s a bit abashed.

“It was weird because I thought it was kind of bland in what it was saying, it was just: “I enjoy a wide variety of things and so when I create my work lots of different types of things impact upon that” and it’s nice to let that happen – to not sing to the choir.”

He’s a little hesitant, careful to make clear he’s not criticising anyone, but when he mentions Pomona he’s back on the front foot. “And Pomona is the best play to talk about that in context because Pomona’s a play that’s got a very direct story running through it – a crime story, really, but what’s different about the way it’s presented is that everything seems…” he hesitates and then pounces on the word he had in mind “…muddied with the clutter of contemporary life. There are a whole host of things attacking the characters from all sides. The noise of the city defines the action.”

In the theatre next to us industrial noise and screams leak through the doors of the theatre, accompanied by a little laughter. On this side, pictures of past Orange Tree productions slide down the wall. He grins. “I had this story that was set in a city and I thought if I’m going to accurately reflect city life – then the atmosphere and tensions of the city have to impact on the form and structure as well as the content. The city is the story in a way.”

Pomona itself is a kind of island, an overgrown strip of land near the centre of Manchester that nobody’s bothered replacing the streetlights on for years. “So when you go past it at night it’s just this black hole. The tram will stop and announce – “this is Pomona”- the doors will open and no-one will get on and no-one will get off. The doors shut again and off you go. It’s a ghostly place.”

The play that’s followed is, by his own admission, “an odd beast.” He’s wary of giving away much about the plot: “it’s a play that I feel works best if you don’t know anything about it – if you go into it clean.”

He’s excited about the Orange Tree’s – perhaps more traditional – audience seeing it: “I think people are pretty flexible about what form a play takes, and what the content is, as long as there’s a real human heart beating at the centre of everything.”

“It’s a strange play for me in that it feels like a lot of my fears and anxieties made incarnate. It’s about people struggling to connect with each other. People being alone, people being on the run. The characters are constantly forced to trade very aggressively in sex or money or violence. People sell themselves or sell other people or get hurt or hurt other people – there’s a constant transaction. All that stuff, a lot of the things I’m most afraid of – runs through the plot in very direct terms.”

At some point in the next few years, the real, physical strip of land that gave birth to Pomona is going to be built over. Made into luxury flats. The thought seems to give McDowall a slight pleasure – it seems fitting. Pomona fits a specific stretch of the last decade he reckons is best summed up by LCD Soundsystem.

“A sense of too much coffee and internet. A jittery mindset. Ego. But aware of that ego and kind of ashamed of it, while wanting everyone to know who I am amongst this – mass of everything – and kind of self-effacing at the same time. When everything is slightly disposable, where do I fit into that?”

“It’s that sense of the constant stream of everything – the internet made everything sort of disposable. It’s almost this constant sense of search… There’s this amazing quote by David Foster Wallace: “We’re all lonely for something we don’t know we’re lonely for.”

If Pomona seems to skewer the last decade, a kind of decaying capitalist city life, what comes next? “It’s interesting to think what will happen when the real impact of how we live starts to make itself known in bigger, more immediate ways. Ways that are much, much harder to ignore. Food and water, and climate change. Interesting to see how that’s going to affect everything because it’s… I don’t know… It’s probably for philosophers to answer that really.”

“There’s a saying that “the writer writes the world they want to live in” and though Pomona is quite a grim play with lots of awful things happening in it, it’s a play where the characters are still very human, despite serious flaws. It’s a play where the characters are striving – though usually failing – to improve things in some way – even if only selfishly at first – and I guess that’s the world I’d like to think we live in. Even in the darkest moments people are still making attempts to keep lights on.”    A slab of noise shakes the wall again. The interview’s over. But McDowall’s just begun.

See more on the Orange Tree Website
£10 tickets for under 30s for all performances.