By Jessica Loram
Struck by the professionalism of HiveMCR’s production of Alistair McDowall’s 2014 psycho-dystopian thriller ‘Pomona’, I reached out to directors Kwame Owusu and Thomas Thacker to find out how such a polished student production came into being. At first, I was surprised to discover that Owusu and Thacker had not seen any previous productions of ‘Pomona’, instead staying “fervently distanced” from anything that might taint their “own digestion of the piece”. On reflection, though, this makes sense. Completely new to ‘Pomona’ myself, I had a hunch that their interpretation had come organically to Manchester University’s HiveMCR.
The team’s fresh engagement with the play manifests in excellent performances delivered by the entire cast. Thacker and Owusu tell me how “building up an extensive knowledge of the characters’ hopes, fears, past, projected future and relationship with others was absolutely paramount”. This considered approach is indeed what distinguishes ‘Pomona’ as a first rate student production. Ensuring that an entire cast sustain convincing character development is admittedly a tall order for a university group and, from my experience as a reviewer at the Fringe, is rarely achieved by amateur groups.
HiveMCR are, however, successful in their endeavour, and the emotional landscape of ‘Pomona’ is thrilling. In spite of the narrative’s surreal backdrop, the real drama of the play lies in an inner human realm, and Thacker and Owusu explain to me how the cast deliberately looked “at the characters at their best and worst to get a perspective of where their emotional range began and ended”. There is no room for lukewarm efforts in HiveMCR’s work
Given the “character-driven” nature, the directors reason that “the drama exudes from the way the broken narrative interacts with its broken characters.” Compelling physical theatre allows the emotional suffering to bleed into the physical realm, too. An unbearable fight scene unravels between the endearing Charlie (Stoops) and Moe (Whitehouse). Finding myself genuinely wincing during the fight, I surprise myself by wanting to find out exactly how they choreographed such a stunning scene. Unsatisfied with their initial physical exercises, Stoops and Whitehouse turned to “how one truly conveys the horror of a bloody fight: the reactions”. A focus on reaction led the actors to “read articles that described the feeling of being stabbed as research and practiced breathing techniques to correctly correlate the characters’ inner panic with their severe pain”. The use of blackout snaps when their blows make contact emphasise “the way the actors vocalise and physicalize their characters’ pain when the lights snapped back on”. Such an attentive and creative approach certainly adds to the thrill of ‘Pomona’.
HiveMCR’s formidable artistic effort extends to the thinking behind the sparse set. Captivated by the cyclical nature of the text, Owusu and Thacker chose to capture this by having “a loop physically appear on stage, ensnaring the characters in a claustrophobic proximity”. A sense of entrapment is cemented further by the plot’s race against time. I learn from the directors that “the chalk circle at the centre of the stage also doubled as a clock, the creature Cthulhu marking the positioning of the scene preceding in the fractured chronology of the play”. Utterly absorbed in the psychological drama, I confess that I missed this detail, but my ignorance did not detract from my understanding of the narrative. If anything, therefore, this detail simply testifies to the diligence at work behind the scenes of HiveMCR’s ‘Pomona’. Moreover, the “purposefully simplistic” set conveys a “sense of loneliness in a city completely entrenched in an underlying moral sparsity.”
Speaking on behalf of the cast, Owusu and Thacker share that “the opportunity to form strong relationships with talented and endlessly kind people was what made the whole process worth it.” It sounds like the challenge of transporting a mattress across Manchester to Edinburgh and a “manic hunt for tofu/Quorn nuggets” only strengthened the group’s rapport. The play’s outstanding success is indicative of their stellar teamwork, and I’m sure would make Alistair McDowall (incidentally an alumnus of Manchester University) proud of what HiveMCR have created.