PONY, Griffin Theatre Company at the SBW Stables Theatre, 12 May-17 June 2023. Photography by Brett Boardman: Briallen Clarke
In 1979, when Marianne Faithfull sang The Ballad of Lucy Jordan, it was an excoriating vision of female desolation as, “…At the age of thirty-seven / She realised she'd never / Ride through Paris in a sports car / With the warm wind in her hair / So she let the phone keep ringing / And she sat there softly singing / Little nursery rhymes she'd memorised / In her daddy's easy chair…”
Now, in 2023, Eloise Snape follows a similar path but with a thrillingly different outcome. At the age of 37 her alter ego Hazel is at a beginning, rather than an end and her nursery rhymes are solemnly intoned by Mrs Sparkles at Glebe Library Rhyme Time. (Actual singing is forbidden because of Covid and Hazel – newly pregnant and terrified – finds solace in the recitation of such kiddy-pleasers as “Indy Wincy Spider” and “The Wheels on the Bus go Round and Round…”)
Whether there was redemption for Lucy Jordan, as she was driven away by men in white coats, we’ll never know, but forty-something years on we discover, over Pony’s 95 action-packed minutes that despite everything, things are going to be better for Hazel. Is it because Hazel is telling her own story? Owning her failings, imagined and otherwise? That she can do so and that life for women really has changed (particularly if they’re white and middle class, or at least aspiring)?
Happily, Snape has approached Hazel’s predicament – of wanting to be pregnant but also being profoundly dubious of what it will mean for her – with buckets of sass, hard-won wisdom and cartloads of the sharpest wit and humour. The result is simultaneously hilarious and shocking as Hazel has casual sex, breaks dicks, drinks her way through pregnancy and in all ways throws shade on the currently politically correct rules of motherhood.
There are frequent gasps and guffaws from female members of the audience (catch-up on Tuesday, 30 May) as Hazel says and does many things we may dream of but don’t dare. As performed by Briallen Clarke, with unstoppable dynamism and comic timing both subtle and broad, the many characters in Hazel’s world are vivid and range between gloriously funny and deeply awful, but always real.
Nevertheless, even with multiple characters, a one-person play can be a difficult undertaking, but director Anthea Williams shapes the physical action and nuances of Clarke’s scintillating performance around set designer Isabel Hudson’s bright pink rocking horse-come-carousel pony. Consequently attention rarely slips (a five minute edit could improve an otherwise glittering script). Glittering too are Hudson’s backdrop of a mosaic nitery wall, a disco ball and Hazel’s gaudy, rhinestone cowgirl outfit. (All made extra glitzy or poignant by lighting designer Verity Hampson).
The huge pink pony, whose carousel pole of course lends itself to pole dancing, is Hazel’s companion throughout as composer and sound designer Me-Lee Hay punctuates the action with effects and the soundtrack of a 37-year-old’s life. Genuwine’s “Pony” also has a lot to do with illustrating Hazel’s predicament as a woman who is not only unsure of her ability to be maternal, but also is afraid she will lose her hard-won freedom and sexual self.
Snape’s insights into being female, scared and wanting it all are as revelatory as they are honest, excruciating and funny. The men in the audience didn’t appear to wriggle too much, despite the explicit horrors of penile fracture (splendid eye-watering SFX), and it would be hard to remain unmoved or unamused by the mix of Hazel/Eloise/Briallen’s vulnerability and rude girl spirit. Totally recommended.