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‘Wonderful and terrifying all at once’ – Playwright Alistair McDowall on unlikely inspirations and writing the unexpected

Alistair McDowall's latest play, Pomona, comes to the Orange Tree Theatre this November.


New playwright Alistair McDowall has a knack for morphing the drudgingly ordinary in to the totally extraordinary. In Captain Amazing one man’s daily grind at B&Q becomes the life of a superhero, while Brilliant Adventures brings a time machine to a gritty housing estate. Citing Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter among his influences, he’s been described as “The most exciting playwright to emerge out of English theatre in the past five years”. His latest play breaks away from the lightness of his previous endeavours. A sinister, surreal thriller, Pomona comes to the Orange Tree Theatre this month. We caught up with Alistair amidst writing and rehearsals to find out more.


RunRiot: Where are you right now? 

Alistair McDowall: I'm sat on the stairwell in a hotel stealing wi-fi. 


RR: Your play, "Brilliant Adventures" features a time machine on a Middlesbrough housing estate. Where did that idea come from?

AD: I have absolutely no idea. I never have a good answer for that question I'm afraid - the story, the setting, the time machine and the characters all arrived at once, fairly fully-formed, in my head, and never explained themselves to me. It always seemed a very logical thing to have that time machine in there; it was never a last-minute addition, but instead a very concrete way of illuminating all the various conflicts, past and present, that existed in the lives of those characters.


RR: Invention and the unexpected seem to be a bit of a theme in your work. Do you look inside for inspiration, or do you find it from the world outside?

AD: I never really go looking for the unexpected, it wouldn't be unexpected if I did! I think plays are a combination of so many disparate elements that it's often hard to pin down quite where they came from. They seem to me to be a mix of what mood you're in, who you spend your time with, what's in the news, what you ate for lunch, what the weather's like, someone you see on a bus, something you smell in the air, an awkward moment you find yourself in, etc, etc. It's a complete mystery to me, which is why it's always a surprise and a miracle when you actually manage to finish a play. 


Playwright Alistair McDowall talks to RunRiot

McDowall cracks the Rubik's cube at rehearsals.


RR: What's most intriguing about your last two plays is the twist to turn the very ordinary into the extraordinary - is this something you've admired in other writers? Any particular inspirations?

AD: Samuel Beckett, Sarah Kane, Caryl Churchill and Harold Pinter have all written miraculous plays which make the extraordinary ordinary and vice-versa. Sam Shepard punctured his drama with furious bursts of theatricality. Reading these writers (amongst many, many others) really made me want to push harder, go further, and try and embrace the liveness of theatre as much as possible. But my impulse to blend the fantastic with the everyday I think just comes from feeling that's how life is anyway - chaotic and bizarre, wonderful and terrifying all at once. The only way I feel I can get even slightly close to writing real life is to physicalise and theatricalise that strangeness somehow.


RR: Your latest play, Pomona, is described as a "sinister and surreal thriller". Can you tell us a little more about it?

AD: It's hard to talk about Pomona as I really feel it's best seen knowing as little as possible about it beforehand.

It's my most specifically urban play, and I feel a product of having lived for many years in one city (Manchester) and spending huge chunks of my time commuting to another (London). It's a story about a young woman looking for her missing sister, that leads her down the rabbit hole into a very peculiar and threatening underworld, one that's alienating and familiar simultaneously.


RR: It's a lot darker than your last two productions - is there something that sparked this?

AD: I don't know! It is dark, but not without humour. I think it shares that with my other plays - I hope there's always laughter even in the darkest moments. That seems fundamental to the human experience to me.


RR: When you're writing a play what's the process like for you? 

AD: It's completely different from play-to-play. The play I wrote previous to Pomona was very big, with a huge cast of characters. The amount of planning and structure work it demanded was enormous, and so Pomona was written almost as a reaction against that - it was still plotted and planned with rigour, but I allowed space for the characters and drama to surprise me more in the writing, and as a result there's a more pronounced sense of chaos and danger to this play - I hope it feels as though anything could happen at any moment. 


RR: In one interview you described how the characters "just turned up in my head" - does this happen often?

AD: Most plays it does. This is the way they seem most real to me. I know I'm still crafting them of course, they don't exist without me, but it seems a more organic process to me like that, that I let them turn up naturally, in their own time, on their own terms. As strange and possibly unsettling as it sounds, that's one of the great joys of writing a new play - meeting some new friends. 


Pomona is at the Orange Tree Theatre, 12th Nov – 13th Dec 


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