Thursday 3 April 2014

Theatre review: Pests

Vivienne Franzmann is a comparatively new playwright but one who's already demonstrated a great deal of range. After the playground politics of Mogadishu1 and the family secrets of The Witness, she takes a turn for the violently lyrical in Pests. Rolly (Ellie Kendrick) and Pink (Sinéad Matthews) are smack-addicted sisters, but Rolly comes out of prison pregnant and clean. She moves in with her sister and attempts to work on the progress she's already made: She's made a friend who works rehabilitating women who've been in prison, and who should be able to set her up with a cleaning job. But if staying off drugs is hard, doing so while sharing a squat with someone who's still using is nigh-on-impossible, and Rolly can't see through Pink's attempts to sabotage her progress.

The Royal Court's production is co-produced by Clean Break, the theatre company that works with women who've been in prison, and despite the fact that the two actors have equal-sized roles this does feel like it's predominantly Rolly's story, a hyper-realistic take on the difficulties faced by ex-cons, even those with the best intentions.

Franzmann's most ambitious decision in Pests, and probably her biggest triumph, is to write the sisters' dialogue in an invented patois, based on the kind of "Jafaican" accent and dialect a lot of London teenagers already speak in, but exaggerated to a lyrical kind of speech with a bit of a Clockwork Orange touch to the unexpectedly old-fashioned words that crop up in what could be the sisters' private language. After the first few moments of impenetrability it quickly becomes comprehensible, and lends a bleak poetry to what could have just been a thoroughly depressing evening.

Joanna Scotcher's set is a chaotic pile of burst mattresses, onto which Kim Beveridge's projections sometimes appear in a burst of firing synapses, as Pink's brain gets scrambled by withdrawal. It lends an additional sense of danger to Lucy Morrison's already-claustrophobic production.

There's nothing cheery about Pests (on the way out Ian described it as making Philip Ridley look like Bambi) but it is endlessly impressive in both its construction and the flawless performances. Both actors throw everything into their roles, Matthews showing a heartbreaking vulnerability under her destructiveness. But for my money Kendrick edges it as performance of the night for the naturalism with which she inhabits Franzmann's heightened character.

Pests by Vivienne Franzmann is booking until the 3rd of May at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

1bless you

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