April 3, 2014 4:51 pm

Pests, Royal Court Upstairs, London – review

A post-prison drama from Vivienne Franzmann that’s flawed but bold and painfully intense
Ellie Kendrick and Sinéad Matthews in ‘Pests’©Jonathan Keenan

Ellie Kendrick and Sinéad Matthews in ‘Pests’

Writer Vivienne Franzmann spent three years working with women prisoners and ex-prisoners before she wrote this play for Clean Break. You might expect a naturalistic diagnosis then of the complex issues that can result in women breaking the law. Instead she has written a compelling, near Expressionist piece in a wild, vivid and dense demotic that aims to bring you into the mindset and experience of the two central characters. It’s flawed – too long and overly self-conscious – but it’s also bold and painfully intense: we won’t forget the two damaged young women at its heart, particularly given the searing performances from Ellie Kendrick and Sinéad Matthews in Lucy Morrison’s production.

Rolly and Pink are sisters. The action starts as Rolly arrives in Pink’s chaotic home. Rolly is heavily pregnant, clutching a see-through bag emblazoned with prison insignia, and, she gradually divulges, ready to start a fresh life. A fellow prisoner has taken her under her wing and found her a job opportunity. It doesn’t take long for us to realise that Pink is not going to take kindly to this plan. She has her little sister back by her side: the prospect of losing her induces wild panic.


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It is Pink’s actions to scupper Rolly’s breakout into respectability that form the backbone of the play, but it is the texture of their relationship that is the meat. Pink’s den is a filthy squat full of rotting mattresses, stolen junk and hidden needles, but, as designed by Joanna Scotcher, it is also an emotional space: it represents the shared history of the sisters, their close bond and interdependency. Franzmann doesn’t detail the neglect, physical and sexual abuse that Pink suffered as a child. Instead she draws us into Pink’s damaged mind: terrifying, nameless shapes and sounds start to invade the space whenever she fears she may be left alone again.

It’s the play’s language, though, that is most striking: both sisters, but Pink in particular, deploy a dense, baroque, highly poetic street patois. It acts as a bond between them and a barrier against the world. The flourish with which Pink uses it demonstrates a quick-thinking intelligence that has not had a chance in life. The play strains for effect in places and has too many narrative twists, but it is beautifully delivered: Kendrick is touching as the better adjusted sister who can’t get away, and Matthews is quite devastating as Pink: a jittery, volatile, broken person.

royalcourttheatre.com and on tour, cleanbreak.org.uk

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