Student houses are infamously murky dwellings. For three nights last week, a house in south Leamington became so abnormally troublesome that a concerned neighbour called the police. The cause was a performance of Alistair McDowall’s 2014 play Pomona, by the new company Don’t Pity the Felon, for which they transformed the house into a dystopian Manchester underworld.
Don’t Pity the Felon is a nascent theatre company at the University of Warwick, founded by third years Josh Stride, Miles Warburton and Joe Taylor. Their shared admiration for Alistair McDowall led them to Pomona as a natural starting point: the play has the qualities – urban, young, current – that the team is looking to showcase in their work. The play also lent itself to a site-specific, immersive performance style, which the company hopes to explore further.
From the moment a besmirched Nicole de Barra staggered through the approaching audience, Leamington was left behind. Torches threw shadows across the front yard; in one sat, unexplained, a silent figure with a head somewhere between an octopus and an ood, solving Rubik’s Cubes. From another emerged a girl named Ollie; she has lost her sister and is seeking help. Conducting the scene was the brilliantly disturbed Oscar Sadler, a god-like figure who, despite his apparent power, refuses to “get involved”. Only just used to this eeriness, we are hurtled through a wooden gate, jostled and harried and heckled by a troupe of spitting down-and-outs. The torches disappear and we are plunged into darkness.
This venue was only alighted upon four days upon opening night; it is a wonder that they did not think of it before. The concrete slabs of driveway and back garden, the pitch black alley joining the two, the cramped rooms compressing the space between audience and actor, the muddy wasteland through a hole in the fence at the bottom of the garden: all combined to create a grey, forsaken world. The sound of a lorry passing, or a sudden car horn, only added to the sense of oppressive urbanity.
Cultural references were at first innocuous: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Dungeons and Dragons. These characters inhabit a familiar, populist world; the same stars watch over them as us. But, gradually, you learn that Pomona is hiding an organ harvesting operation. With its debt to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, the play moves from disturbing reality to sinister fantasy. As several characters express a desire for fire to take everyone alive, and only ash to be left in the world, the horror rises that we are witnessing social holocaust. And, by not “getting involved”, the audience is complicit in it.
An outstanding performance from Joseph Mathews gave the play its heart. Ever earnest, kind and lonely, his aching display made us root for him even though we see him killed in the second scene of the performance: the subsequent flashbacks, displaying desperate attempts to make friends and to be a good person, are all the more heartbreaking because we know they are futile. Even more painful is the fact we must watch his friendship evolve with the man (Moe, played by Miles Warburton) we know will kill him.
Moe is not fully a bad man, though. In a pitiful scene with the prostitute Faye, sensitively played by Matilda McCarthy, he explains how he has tried to overcome his tendencies towards violence. But the structure of the play leaves you in no doubt that any good intentions will be cruelly smashed. All these characters are afraid, hurting and desperately lonely, so much so that you want to reach out and touch them. But by hesitating, you become in part responsible for their demise.
The play’s many threads are engrossing, even if the narrative is ultimately unclear. The role-playing game element, and the rolling of dice to decide action, seems to suggest the whole story might just be in someone’s head. It didn’t help that the entire resolution of the play – in which the organ factory is finally, creepily explained – happened in a rush. This may have been a fault of the writing rather than the production, but it was sufficient that a sense of disorder and hopelessness pervaded the end of the play.
Pomona pits against each other the possessed and dispossessed, men and women, the powerful and powerless. The success of the production lay in its refusal to let the audience sit passively outside those dichotomies. Standing amongst the characters, peering through windows at them in their bedrooms, we were the culprits, as guilty and responsible as the worst of them. Leamington Spa was no longer a safe space, a refuge from the theatre: it became the theatre and Pomona became the world. We may walk away from the student house but, like the characters, we are trapped, unable to escape.