I saw The Pride with my mum on Friday. I saw it because it was recommended to me by a friend who designed the costumes, and because I heard such good things about Zoe Pepper’s last directorial project, the rave-reviewed Heart of Gold. Also, I had a class with Pepper at Curtin many years ago, so there was an element of “how is that she’s gone on to make acclaimed independent plays and I’ve gone on to reviewing them for no money?” behind my motivations.
But mainly it was the other, less craven things, and the advent of my mother’s birthday, that drove me to go. It sounded very different from my past (admittedly few) experiences with local independent theatre, which have been characterised by dreary realism, mundane family melodrama, and superficial engagements with Australian identity. The prospect of a production about a family of lions, which featured dance numbers and Corey Hart lip-synching, seemed like a refreshing change from that tradition. I’m happy to say that it was.
The Pride is mostly a vehicle for Gervais/Boosh/sometimes Will Ferrell-style character and situation comedy, but it has a fairly meaty plot to hang the jokes on. A pair of lions, Linda (Adriane Daff) and Bruce (Brendan Ewing) have recently gotten married, moved into a new home, and had some babies. In one of a number of amusing plot devices and concessions to actual lion behaviour, this means that Linda’s sisters have to move into the apartment and help raise the cubs. Bruce, a figure of problematic, undermined masculinity, makes promises about renovating the house to accommodate Linda’s sisters, but doesn’t follow through. When a friendly but overbearing neighbour, James (Russell Leonard), offers to help, comedy, and then weirdness, ensues.
The greatest appeal of The Pride is its surreal logic. I wanted something unlike anything I’d seen produced by Perth practitioners, and I got it in the first few minutes. Linda is ecstatic that Bruce has bought her an answering machine, they high five, then she announces that she is pregnant. There is a beat, Bruce is overjoyed, then a rain of stuffed toy lions flies over the set dressing and lands on the floor front of them. The couple launches into a housemaking montage, during which, to stage right, on the margins of the audience’s focus, Daff rips open one of the cubs, a red cloth coming from its guts signifying blood, and eats it. No comment on her cannibalism, presumably something that actually occurs within lion populations, is made, the “montage” ends, and the play continues. We have entered a rich, symbolic world where reality is both honoured (through the depiction of accurate lion social organisation) and compromised (through the non-rational causality of the events). Because of this internal tension, the play is immediately intoxicating.
Once it has us, what does it do with us? As mentioned above, the joy of the play is not so much its narrative as its jokes. I can see people being turned off by the play’s obvious inspiration by and sometimes blatant borrowing of comedic tropes (Ewing’s mugging to the audience while he’s beset by criticism is pure David Brent), but it didn’t bother me, which is a credit to the actors. Their rhythm is excellent, and Ewing particularly helps the play earn its stylistic loaning. He is the show’s star, he puts in a titanic effort, and his patter, physicality, and timing riddles the play with more jokes than an audience can catch, none of which I can replicate properly without referring to a script. The fact that the jokes are hard to recreate is a tribute to their absolute suffusion into every line of dialogue and the physical dimension, a credit to the collaborative writing of the cast and Pepper.
More mixed were my feelings about the production’s serious side. When Bruce’s masculinity (his, cleverness alert, pride) is tested by James taking control of the renovations, he flies into a rage and starts to bully James and Linda. As my mum put it, “the shit hits the fan”, and the mood shifts from delightful to psychopathic. It is a very sudden shift, and while it make sense given the madcap, unfettered emotion of the play’s reality, it is much more arch than expected. This is not strictly speaking bad, in fact grounding the otherwise off-the-wall comedy in very serious emotional turmoil prevents it from becoming frivolous, but I cannot decide whether this extreme lurching is another intoxicating dialectic or whether it is simply contrived drama.
The play ends on another, even graver scene, which is open-ended and brutal without offering resolution as such, but this is consistent with its early-established symbolic and stylistic logic. I didn’t feel cheated by this choice, but nor do I feel as though it graduated the play to a higher conceptual register. It isn’t a flaw, it isn’t a misstep, but it gestures toward a meaning that it doesn’t quite attain. Plus, and perhaps this is the sit-com lover in me speaking, I really wanted to see what happened when the sisters moved in! Probably some slaphappy shit!
But, to keep this quibbling in proportion, I hasten to add that this abstract climax was preferable to a blandly rounded, or a weakly “unresolved” ending, and that however much the ending didn’t match my expectations, it didn’t undo my investment in the play. The Pride is smart, funny and terrifically performed. It has a strong personality behind it and a primal, sinister spirit haunting its comedic heart.
It runs from Tuesday to Saturday until September 18. Go see it, ya bimbo!