Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Pests, Royal Court

Review: Pests, Royal Court

“It don’t get better dan dis.” Pink lies back, totally blitzed. On the adjacent bed, with the same delirious expression, lies her younger sister Rolly. They hold hands. Or rather, they rest their hands in one another’s palms, both incapable of exerting any grip. Pink says it again, a little more emphatic this time: “It don’t get better dan dis.”

It’s a stunning line: perfectly ambiguous. The addict’s exhalation of pure pleasure is also an admission of defeat, one that damns itself to failure and settles instead for the easier option of oblivion. Contentedness over happiness. Present over future. Escapism over escape.

Rolly and Pink aren’t the first characters to relapse and retreat into that dilated bliss. Nor are they the first to drag one another into dependency. What marks them out is Pests’ awareness that it’s not all about the drug, that addiction is as much about one’s relationship with the world as with a particular substance. Vivienne Franzmann’s play, written following a residency with the women’s prison-theatre company Clean Break, has a sharp social conscience, both in terms of what it portrays and how it portrays it. It’s not just that heroin is one hell of  a trap – it is, of course it is – but escaping it isn’t as simple as just not taking heroin.

Rolly returns from prison pregnant and prepared. She’s got clean, yes, but she’s also got support and options: a careworker called May and an interview for a cleaning job, both through an ex-offenders network. At home, however, Pink’s got the Spice Girls on repeat, a headful of unfeasible dreams and a marked victim complex, born of a broken childhood and sexual abuse. And she’s got Rolly. For now, at least. She needs to keep Rolly.

For these women, breaking the cycle of dependency isn’t simply an uphill struggle, it’s an insurmountable obstacle. They don’t know where to start – a job, maybe, or, I know, a juicer. Day by day just doesn’t compute. One step at a time still leaves them closer to heroin than anything like hope. They look around and see “gogglebox” role models – Beyonce, Gordon Ramsey, Kim and Aggie – with their unattainable, airbrushed lifestyles. Their dreams are too top-end – luxury holidays or full-blown literacy – to drive them on and their hopes rest only on Lotto wins or reality television – modern-day miracles, millennial dei ex machina.

Pink and Rolly need a fresh start – a clean break. They itch to tidy their surroundings. They daydream of a childhood holiday, a family trip to Camber Sands. If they could start again, they’d do it all differently. All they need is to keep that family, that home, together this time. Pink steals a pair of glittery red shoes and forces them onto Rolly’s feet. “Click dem heels together,” she demands and the pair start chanting, ‘Dere ain’t no place like home. Dere ain’t no place like home.” It’s another moment of stunning ambiguity. All Pink and Rolly want is a tornado to return them to their Kansas, Camber Sands, yet home – for now – is here, this shithole. No place like home is nostalgic, but it also means never moving on, never moving out. It says, ‘It don’t get better dan dis.’ Besides Rolly can’t walk in these skyscraper stilettos. She can’t escape, especially not when Pink gaffa-tapes her feet in. They might as well be stocks or chains.

There is, in this, a dreamy quality that’s utterly crucial to the play. It’s there in the extraordinary language as well. Franzmann uses a kind of high-falutin’ street slang, a concocted patois that functions through rhythm, rhyme and onomatopoeia. It sounds familiar, not unlike that clipped, consonant-heavy South London patter with a twist of rhyming slang, but it goes to places that those tongues might not. Miss Havisham becomes a put-down. “Conjure me a smoothie.” Verbs warp out of grammatical correctness: vitaminisation, hurted, telt.

The effect is twofold. One, it puts another barrier between them and the world. Their language is function; they understand one another and we understand them, but it’s not proper and it’s clear that it will make their getting jobs and integrating with society harder.

More than that, though, it removes Pink and Rolly from reality – something that Joanna Scotcher’s superb set, which makes their home a rat’s nest of insulating material and mattresses, all cosy and womb-like (why would they leave?) As such, Franzmann avoids any charge of poverty porn. Pests is more like poverty poetry. Bcause she gives us characters that so clearly stand for something beyond themselves, she’s not offering misery up as a night’s entertainment or art detached from the world, but encouraging us to see these women more abstractly, as a fact of society that exist in relation to ourselves and the wider world, as people not pests. Theirs isn’t an appropriated language either, but an amalgamated, invented language and, as such, there’s no discomfort about enjoying its absurdities or, indeed, its eloquence. Franzmann has pulled off something rather remarkable and weaved a way through a minefield of aesthetic problems about class and culture. That takes some serious care and attention.

There’s another benefit, too. It allows Franzmann control over the language used – as in the way she sews in the vocabulary of vermin, ‘fur’ for hair, ‘pups’ for children and so on – but that language is, first and foremost, the characters’ own. It’s not a case of code, of a playwright smuggling signs into their speech, but rather a slang her characters own entirely. Rolly and Pink’s language is a filter on their world; it’s how they see and interpret it, not – as is so often the case – a matter of the playwright’s interpretation voiced clunkingly by a character by proxy. Franzmann isn’t putting words in their mouths.

Admittedly, the play can be repetitious and it’s certainly over-long. There comes a point where you’ve got the point. But there’s a lot to love about Lucy Morrison’s considered production: two scorching performances from Sinead Matthews and Ellie Kendrick, both miles out of their comfort zone but treading confidently and carefully around possible pitfalls; Fabianna Piccioli’s lighting adds a huge amount of texture and Kim Beveridge’s video-mapping is some of the most precise and unobstrusive I’ve seen, inserting the idea of another cycle, plague and extinction as flames seem to rip through the nest.

Photograph: Jonathan Keenan

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