When pianist and academic Anna Goldsworthy, director of Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium of Music, became pregnant with her first child, her initial excitement was tempered by worries about the daunting journey ahead. She was bombarded by well-meaning, but often unhelpful, advice and haunted by her own expectations of perfection.
As a writer with great literary genes (her father is Peter Goldsworthy) she kept journals during that time and these became the basis for her best-selling memoir. That first child, Reuben, is now a teenager, so her feelings about pregnancy and motherhood have had time to mature.
Mitchell Butell, artistic director of State Theatre Company SA, is credited with persuading Goldsworthy to adapt her book for the stage, which she did with dramaturgical support from Tim Overton. If the audience response on the opening night of this world premiere run is any indication, Butell made a good decision. The laughter was hearty and the applause generous; there was even a standing ovation, not something that happens all the time in Adelaide!
The show opens on a bright set decorated in kindy-colours. It’s a child’s nursery or playroom and the striking design by Simon Greer, with oversized doors and simple furnishings, works well. The clever lighting design by Gavin Norris complements the set perfectly.
The three actors are all on stage throughout the play. Erin James is strong in the lead role – we know it’s Anna, but I don’t think that’s ever actually said. She ramps up the excitement and the anxiety of pregnancy and motherhood in equal measure. Matt Crook, very well-known to Adelaide audiences, is brilliant as Anna’s patient but often helpless husband. He also occasionally steps into other supporting characters to fill out the narrative.
Kathryn (Kitty) Adams multi-tasks as the helpful – or often intentionally irritating – friends, relatives, and advisers; she even moonlights as Rupert the loyal family pooch. Full marks to Director Shannon Rush for keeping a firm hand on proceedings and not letting it descend into the farce that is always just a step or two away.
At the beginning of the play, Anna talks of ‘birth as the reverse of death’ and this foreshadows another narrative arc – the old age and, yes, eventual death of her much-loved grandmother, Moggie, conveyed with warmth by Adams.
In a production described as a “play with music”, there are a few songs by musical director Alan John scattered throughout Welcome to Your New Life. These accentuate the Play School aesthetic, but don’t really help the storyline and feel like a distraction more than an integral part of the script.
It’s all here, in this big and bright play, all the worries and anxieties and neuroses of motherhood, from Anna’s pregnancy sausage cravings after 16 years as a vegetarian, to her fatal fears about the composting toilet that ruin their romantic post-baby getaway at a country retreat.
Gradually the fears and frustrations abate and three years on, the play ends with the announcement of Anna’s second pregnancy.
It is difficult to be critical of a play based on a memoir – this is a real person’s lived experience – but I still found the play problematic. Why should the diverse approaches women take towards childbirth be portrayed as comedic and absurd? Clearly most people, parents or not, would find the idea of having an orgasm during labour to be hilarious. Even so, the endless jokes about birth plans and other practices that are now accepted as mainstream feel like we are belittling a woman’s legitimate right to make her own birthing choices.
This is unquestionably an engaging play and it’s performed with energy and enthusiasm by the accomplished ensemble. You can enjoy every moment, but still reflect on those difficult questions: does it make light of the all-too-real trauma of postnatal depression? And is the audience laughing with her or at her as she deals with these anxieties and navigates life, love and relationships in her “new life”? Something to ponder when the applause is over.
Welcome to your New Life by Anna Goldworthy
Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
Director: Shannon Rush
Composer/Musical Director: Alan John
Lighting Director: Gavin Norris
Production Designer: Simon Greer
Sound Designer: Andrew Howard
Cast: Erin James, Kathryn Adams, Matt Crook
Welcome to Your New Life will be performed until 25 November 2023.