“Alkie, nutnutjob dad, piss, shit, punch, junkie mum, no shoes, lice, black eye, care, fucked, excluded, bullied, foster home, gnaw, prison, gnaw, prison, gnaw, prison”
One of the first things that strikes you about Vivienne Franzmann’s new play Pests is the extraordinary use of language. Much like Eugene O’Neill in plays like Anna Christie, it is written in densely packed dialect – in this case a modern street slang – which looks near-impenetrable on the page but in the hands of such extraordinary performers like Sinéad Matthews (who delivers the line quoted above), it has the currency of real life, an authenticity that speaks from the battered, neglected heart.
Matthews plays Pink, a drug addict who welcomes her heavily pregnant sister Rolly, Ellie Kendrick, into her squat on her release from prison. Whilst inside Rolly has gotten clean and is determined to take advantage of a job opportunity on an ex-offenders scheme in a hotel but Pink just wants to get the party started again, trying to obliterate the painful memories of the care system that treated her much worse than her little sister. And as they pull in different directions, their inextricably complex relationship binds them ever closer.
This destructive cycle of co-dependency, or sibling bond depending on how you want to look at it, is superbly drawn, hypnotically compelling even if we are forced to look through our fingers at the relentless horror of the situation. Franzmann has worked closely with co-producers Clean Break who commissioned the piece and it shows, there’s a deep emotional intelligence at work here that refuses to demonise the individual but rather furiously indicts the system that just chews them up and leaves them adrift in a society that largely doesn’t care.
That’s not to say they’re not culpable too – Matthews (surely an actress destined for a huge future) brilliantly depicts the edgy temperament of Pink, unable to ever sit still and far too easily drawn to the dark, horrendously dark, places to which addiction drives her. And Kendrick offers an adroit counterweight as the (slightly) more balanced one, able to visualise a more positive future even if the baggage of the past is a huge obstacle in the way. Desperate and raw, Pests does much to elucidate how hard it can be to escape vicious cycles once they have started.
Credit too must go to the creative team. Joanna Scotcher’s cluttered design suggests a childlike sense of play smashed up against the harsh realities of adulthood with its piles of dirty mattresses and sofas; Fabiana Piccioli’s stark lighting marries well with Kim Beveridge’s hallucinatory video work which explores the disintegration of Pink’s psyche; and Lucy Morrison corrals every element together into one of the more brutally effective pieces of theatre of the year so far.