‘I thought I’d written a stinker’ – Alistair McDowall on global hit Pomona and new play The Glow

He’s written horrors, thrillers and sci-fi odysseys. As his new play about Victorian spiritualism opens, the dramatist explains why no territory is out of bounds for theatre, not even Pluto

Alistair McDowall’s new play The Glow transports its audience back to the 1860s where Mrs Lyall, a spiritualist medium, is visiting an asylum, searching for someone to act as an assistant. There she finds a strange, nameless, voiceless woman and takes her home, only to discover that the woman herself has powers.

The premise is not wholly unfamiliar but McDowall is concerned as much with English myth and Arthurian legend as he is with the supernatural: how the past remains with us in the present and how we fictionalise history to make sense of ourselves. McDowall set out to write a fairytale “that had actual consequences”, taking something that appears to reside in the realm of the fantastic and grounding it in the real world “for there to be cost and emotional heft”.

The Glow is intended to catch people off-guard, he explains over Zoom from Manchester, where he sits surrounded by boxes, having moved house the day before. Presenting audiences with something that looks familiar and then unravelling it is something McDowall is good at: his plays have a way of playing with your expectations. This can make them difficult to write about without revealing too much. X, from 2016, is a good example: it is set on a research base on Pluto that has lost contact with Earth. The clocks start going backwards. There is a glitch in time. But it is, at heart, a play about loss.

‘I tend to write work that’s quite high-concept’ … The Glow.
‘I tend to write work that’s quite high-concept’ … The Glow. Photograph: Johan Persson

Time has played a key role in a lot of McDowall’s work. “To not consider time as a proper element within the writing of the play,” he says, “would be like not considering character or scene structure.” Nonetheless, like JB Priestley, he has several works that could be described as “time plays” and 2011’s Brilliant Adventures even contains an actual time machine.

More recently, All of It, a 45-minute rattle through one woman’s life, was performed by Kate O’Flynn at London’s Royal Court last year. It was directed – like X and The Glow – by Vicky Featherstone. “I tend to write work that’s quite high-concept,” he says. “There’s always a danger of someone getting fixated on the concept and making something flashy.” But Featherstone, he says, is very rooted. Despite X’s off-world location, she understood that the “story was actually quite simple.”

Growing up in Great Broughton, North Yorkshire, McDowall’s interest in theatre was sparked, in part, by a drama teacher. At school, he read a vast amount and started stealing books “which I’ve since posted back out of guilt”. He finds the decline of drama in schools upsetting, not just because it means that potential writers or actors won’t have their eyes opened in the way his were, but also because drama can “temporally erode all the divisions that can build up at school”.

Interested in film to begin with, he couldn’t afford a camera but found he could pressure his friends to be in his plays, many of which were “variations on The Breakfast Club”. By this he means a lot of people sitting in a room, talking. “That’s what I thought a play was.” But then he got into Beckett and Sarah Kane, Laurie Anderson and Sam Shepard, and began to discover the potential of theatre. “I am a theatre nerd,” he laughs.

Part dystopian thriller, part Lovecraftian horror … Pomona.
Part dystopian thriller, part Lovecraftian horror … Pomona. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Originally commissioned by Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, before playing London’s Orange Tree theatre, his 2014 play Pomona – a mix of dystopian thriller and Lovecraftian horror – feels like the antithesis of a Breakfast Club play. After a wobbly first preview, he remembers thinking: “Oh God, I’ve written a real stinker.” It’s a bleak play, nightmarish in places, but it became a cult hit, transferring to the National Theatre’s temporary Shed space. It’s his most performed play to date and has been staged all over the world, something that still seems to surprise him.

Reading an early draft of The Glow brings to mind everything from Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Critics often comment on the deft way McDowall uses genre tropes, but he is surprised theatre doesn’t do this more often. After all, he says, “a research base on Pluto is just as fake as a drawing room in Victorian London”.

McDowall is energised by the idea of people being able to come together in an auditorium once again. This is why, he says, theatre will always be his home: there’s a magic there you can’t find elsewhere. “You can put people in a room with some actors and you can go wherever.”


Natasha Tripney

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
All of It review – everywoman takes us from cradle to grave
Alistair McDowall’s monologue – performed by a mesmerising Kate O’Flynn – channels female experience with warmth and humour

Arifa Akbar

11, Feb, 2020 @2:03 PM

Article image
Is Jerusalem the play of the century? Top playwrights give their verdicts
As Mark Rylance returns to the West End stage as the rambunctious Rooster in Jez Butterworth’s shaggy state-of-the-nation play, six writers consider its power and legacy

Interviews by Andrew Dickson

04, Apr, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
All of It review – Alistair McDowall’s extraordinary tales of ordinary life
Three audacious monologues by McDowall, dazzlingly performed by Kate O’Flynn, open vivid windows on to day-to-day existence

David Jays

09, Jun, 2023 @10:46 AM

Article image
The Glow review – myth and history collide in a sci-fi spine-tingler
Alistair McDowall’s enthralling meditation on time and mortality features a sword-fighting knight and a Victorian medium

Kate Wyver

28, Jan, 2022 @9:30 AM

Article image
The Royal Court’s Vicky Featherstone: ‘Britain thinks it isn’t antisemitic because it defeated Hitler’
A group of queer, black friends, the Jewish experience, how a British Iraqi saw the Gulf War … as she unveils her radical programme, the artistic director talks about learning from the row which saw the theatre accused of antisemitism

Arifa Akbar

13, Jun, 2022 @11:54 AM

Article image
‘I grabbed two rings, took my mother, daughter and the cat’: the playwright who fled Kyiv
How does it feel to be bombed out of your home town? The author of Bad Roads writes about her desperate departure from Kyiv after Russia’s invasion

Natal’ya Vorozhbit

30, Mar, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Rita, Sue and #MeToo: 'There'd be outrage if it was written today'
Was the Royal Court right to put on Rita, Sue and Bob Too? We asked three playwrights to look afresh at Andrea Dunbar’s story of two girls preyed on by an older man

Ella Carmen Greenhill , Atiha Sen Gupta and April De Angelis

17, Jan, 2018 @4:23 PM

Article image
Jez Butterworth: quicksilver sage behind the 21st century's best play
In Jerusalem, the playwright laid bare a country’s phoney myths and confronted who we really are as individuals and nations

Michael Billington

17, Sep, 2019 @2:43 PM

Article image
The week in theatre: A Number; The Glow – review
Lennie James and Paapa Essiedu illuminate Caryl Churchill’s great cloning play, while a fine cast lift Alistair McDowall’s wordy new dystopia

Susannah Clapp

06, Feb, 2022 @10:30 AM

Article image
‘Roger Moore collapsed one night. I thought he’d died’: how we made The Play What I Wrote
‘Ralph Fiennes strode into the dressing room and said he loved the show – we booked him there and then. The whole thing was very kick-bollocks-scramble’

Interviews by Andrew Dickson

22, Nov, 2021 @3:00 PM