'Pests' review or 'I need another hit!'

'Pests', Vivienne Franzmann
Royal Court Theatre, 17th April 2014 

Vivienne Franzmann has spent the last three years working with prison-led theatre company Clean Break and she's been listening very carefully. 'Pests' is suffused with the rhythms, diction and repeating patterns of a life led in and out of prison. The language is new and personal, the pace stutters in strange ways and the visuals are hallucinatory and unsettling. ‘Pests’ is an ugly crawling creature of a show, held together and ripped apart by two excellent central performances.

There's a whiff of Beckett to this play about entrapment, dead end cycles, mutual dependency and loathing. Think Happy Days (in which the main character is trapped waist up in a mound) mixed with Waiting for Godot (in which two tramps love and loathe each other) and peppered with shedloads of drugs. Godot's mound is replaced with an equally suffocating location; a hole of an apartment, packed with ripped mattresses and piles of rubbish. This is the on-off home for sisters Rolly and Pink who have spent much of their lives addicted to drugs and in and out of care.

Joanna Scotcher's design surrounds the hovel with a skeletal framework, made up of piping. There's something taunting about those pipes, which should provide warmth but instead leave the walls wide open. Director Lucy Morrison has done a brilliant job of stitching together the language, lighting (Fabiana Piccioli), video design (Kim Beveridge) and sound (Emma Laxton) into one ugly and arresting tapestry. All these elements are used in tandem to help reflect the girls' fluctuating mental states, which are undone so violently by the drags they consume.

Sinéad Matthews is magnetizing as Pink, the leader of this pack of two. She is sister to Rolly (Ellie Kendrick), who is recently out of prison, pregnant but 'clean'. Both girls talk in a staccato rhythm and at a bulldozing pace. They share their own language, in which words are merged and suffixes are added to everything; 'whisperage, jobage, confessage'. There is something accusatory about this hammering speech but something babyish, too, which reminds one of the private language a mother might use with her young child.

The pace of the dialogue is unrelenting but it doesn't feels hammered out. There's a sway to the words, and Matthews' and Kendrick's performances, which keeps the play loose.  Matthews constant clambering and twitching chimes with her rifling and restless speech. The script is bruising but lyrical and there is a manic poetry to some of Franzmann's phrases, which is seriously impressive; 'She was crammed full of the trembles.'

The impact of the drugs is carefully woven into the fabric of the play, along with the possibility that Pink might have some kind of personality disorder. Ugly red holes are projected onto the rubbish tip 'home' and slowly spread outwards. They look like the crust of the earth yawning wide open. Sometimes these creeping holes are a low glowing red and at other times they are white and frenetic, like a light storm. There's no defined pattern to when these images appear and, when they come, the girls are powerless to their frightening crawl.

But this isn't merely misery porn; a jet black unearthing of a miserable existence. It's sparky, funny and surprising. There is an unfettered creativity to the sisters conversation which, hand on heart, reminds one of Joyce at his cheekiest. Words merge weirdly and they're funnier and more useful for it. The few mentions of kindness or compassion shine out. The good people become purely their goodness through the sisters' idiosyncratic description; 'She...loveliness.'

There are a few duff notes. There's a running theme about the Wizard of Oz and some shiny red 'no place like home' shoes, which feels much too obvious for this rough-edged show. There's also a scene involving a rat-birth which, for my money, just doesn't fit. But there's heart and energy and soul in this exposed  production. It's a play that captures the devastating paradox of a life addicted to drugs. Just like a damaging relationship with a loved one, the drugs are both a form of escape and entrapment; the way out and the very thing that blots out all the exits.  


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