Ponies Don’t Play Football

Ponydance present 'Ponies Don't Like Football.'

Ponydance present 'Ponies Don't Like Football.'

The self-proclaimed champions of comedy dance theatre, Ponydance’s latest offering Ponies Don’t Play Football at the MAC, is not so much a tongue-in-cheek jest from beginning to end, as an ass-in-cheek one. A startling opener presents three knicker-clad bums aggressively twerking the audience with the support of a hybrid of Belfast bands ‘Uncle Social’ and ‘NI Soul Troop’, before those shaking backsides transform into full-bodied semi-naked performers.

An ensemble of four main comedy dancers make up this troupe: Leonie McDonagh, Deirdre Griffin, Oona Doherty and Neil Hainsworth (“he’s not gay”). Direct interactions with the band, a lone trumpet player in a tux, the stage manager and the audience are interspersed throughout the performance. ‘Comedy dance’ is an apt way to define their work, as sequence after sequence presents cheeky, energetic and attention-grabbing moves. Yet through all the mock moves, the chemistry and trust between the four radiates through. Elements of the choreography include multiple instances of being stood on, or thrown, or hung upside down by their fellow ponies. While always immersed in a comedic framework, their choreography still breathed virtuosity, preparation and intent.

This performance certainly foregrounds the ‘E’ in entertainment, as director Leonie McDonagh sets the in-yer-face tone by asking the audience following the first bum-in-face sequence, “Any of ye lads have a semi?” Searching for a deeper ideological meaning or overarching master narrative may prove fruitless here. This performance was about fun, and it delivered fun. It did not directly pose a question or interrogate an issue. The subversion and questioning of traditional gender roles is gently nudged, but this is not a political piece. It is a welcome reminder, however, in the current climate of staging institutional corruptions and failures, that the theatrical space can be home to a good dirty laugh as well as philosophical enquiry and exposure. And the ponies ensured a good dirty laugh was had.

High points include Hainsworth’s plea to the audience to believe that he wasn’t gay and that his Filipino girlfriend was not a mail-order bride, breaking into song with full musical accompaniment to help support his claims, which only mocked them further. At the end, the band switched places with the dancers. Bending over, ass to the audience, they offered their own interpretation of the ponies’ twerking, gyrating, and ass-in-face moves, as the ensemble took to the drums, guitar and microphone. The men dancing ended the performance on a climax of near-hysteria, as recognition of ‘Irish man-dancing’ (mancing, perhaps?) swept through the space. Yet their willingness to try to dance only heightened their endearing personae.

The disco-esque lighting, live music and cheeky choreography combined to produce an atmosphere of liberation. At times, the space felt more like a music festival rather than a performance in a theatre venue. Little scenography was manifest on stage. Once the performance began, however, audience focus was consistently demanded by the ponies and the absence of scenography became less of a question. Why wonder about set, when they are gangbanging the drummer, or ripping white tape off their nipples? Ouch.

Frequent costume changes hinted that there may be some minor structural details to be reconsidered. When the cast moved behind the band or went offstage to change, the trumpet player cited some of his thesis on music. It was an ironic filler-piece which drew a few laughs, yet as it continued it disrupted the high pace and threatened to disperse the energy and full audience attention the ponies had previously achieved in an otherwise winning performance.

Ponies may not be able to play football, but they certainly can play – at tennis, at gendered critique, and at ensuring a room full of people got on their side within minutes and cheered them along. They owe much to the charms of the bands’ involvement, as the live music was central not only to the timing of their movement but to telling their story of mischief and mayhem. By its end, a standing ovation from the audience suggested they had converted a room full of patrons into pony-ettes. Long may they gallop.

Miriam Haughton is a researcher at The Creative Exchange Northern Ireland, an AHRC project run by the University of Ulster and Queen's University Belfast.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Ponies Don’t Play Football by Ponydance

1 - 5 October, 2013

Produced by Ponydance
In the Mac, Belfast

Directed by Leonie McDonagh

With: Leonie McDonagh, Donal Scullion, Oona Doherty, Gareth Doran, John McCourt, Brendan Scullion, Neil Hainsworth, Conor Scullion, Deirdre Griffin, Sara Swojdzinski, Christine Campbell, Michael Barkley