When you walk into Griffin Theatre Company’s tiny wedge of a theatre and lock eyes with the googly eyes of a gigantic pink rocking horse (with what turns out to be a stripper pole/birthing grip impaling its hindquarters), you suspect you’re in for a helluva ride.
Our journey, directed by Anthea Wiliams, indeed leads us through some eye-popping twists and turns until something (an imaginary bub) finally pops out of heroine Hazel’s birth canal. Our first stop: Glebe Library Rhyme Time, when (the very much not-showing) Hazel gatecrashes a new parents’ group run by the improbably named Mrs Twinkle. (Side note: there are more than a few ‘improbables’ in this play, which extend to Nutella-smeared male stripper bums, a midwife with a whistle, and the breaking of not one but two penises during intercourse, on two separate occasions.)
As we travel along, we get to know 37-year-old Hazel as a woman who is self-centred, crass, fun-loving and Below Deck obsessed – and alternately in oblivious denial and high anxiety about what is happening to her, and what the future holds. Perspectives shift and relationships reconfigure – with friends, loved ones, and old selves. Rather than think about ‘what to expect when you’re expecting’ she fixates on things like the name of her friend’s child – FYI, it’s “Reon”.
Her mindset seems trapped inside a snippet of one of Mrs Twinkle’s rhymes: “The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round...”
“Round and round,” Hazel repeats in low and ominous tones throughout the play. “Round and round.” What this refrain means is never expressly made clear. But given Hazel’s fraught relationship with her mother, the Great Unknown that awaits her, and a clue in the final scene, it can be read as reference generational cycles, inherited legacies, the many inevitable monotonies that parenthood demands, and the fears embedded in all of them.
Or, perhaps there’s a more simple explanation. “Round and round!” my partner shouted excitedly to me afterwards. “She’s getting rounder and rounder!”
Isabel Hudson’s set design – complete with shimmering iridescent mermaid scale walls – is fabulous. That larger-than-life, spinning, merry-go-round centrepiece (christened Doris, according to Griffin’s Insta) is audacious and campy, a boldly imagined mashup of nursery and nightlife, and cleverly representative of the sheer psychic and fleshy and literal space that pregnancy and its typical aftermath takes up. Hudson is also behind costuming, and her glittery pink cowgirl outfit for Hazel, with its ridiculously long tassels, is playfully garish.
Yet, a little jarringly, Briallen Clarke’s solo performance isn’t calibrated to match this bombastic visual display. Where Snape’s script snaps, she saunters; where it enters unhinged territory, she pulls back. Everything is underperformed with a droll and jaded air – like a stand-up comedian with a self-styled lazy schtick, all too confident that they have everyone in the palm of their hand. It seemed fitting when Clarke shucked off the squintingly sparkly pink cowboy boots about a third of the way through – her performance doesn’t suit their dazzling ironic excess. There are literally dozens of other characters Clarke must inhabit in-between Hazel, too, and these switches are not always deft or convincing.
That Clarke wasn’t costumed with a fake distended belly – as she is in the promotional material! – made me feel both relieved and a little cheated. Understated disclaimer: I’m a bit squeamish when it comes to pregnancy. It’s a personally conceived body horror I never want to undergo. And if you ask me to hold your baby, I will run to the other side of the room and cuddle your cat instead. But on the opening night of Pony, I'd promised myself to put my mature hat on along with my critic’s hat, and was ready to be confronted, to be challenged; for my puerile attitude to be roundly educated. Roundly and roundly! But without the visual cue of the human pupae about to burst, and with Hazel hardly ever looking motherhood straight in the eye, sometimes the whole pregnancy thing seemed to drift out of focus.
Pony trots into its debut with many ribbons affixed. It was runner up for four awards (four!): the Griffin Theatre Award, the QLD Premier’s Drama Award, the Rodney Seaborn’s Playwrights Award, and the Patrick White Playwrights Award. This production, however, seems a little underprepared to run its first race.
Perhaps those more intimately acquainted in the ways of human reproduction – its joys, horrors, insanities and inconceivable challenges – will get more of a kick out of Pony. If you’re in a yummy mummy group chat, and find the notion of a woman timing her labour pushes to a Magic Mike number appealing – this could very well be your night at the theatre.
Me? I’ll never hear Ginuwine’s 1996 hit the same way again.
Pony is playing at the SBW Stables Theatre, Darlinghurst, until June 17. Find out more and snap up tickets over here.