It’s rare that a playwright comes along whose use of language is so distinctive they couldn’t possibly be mistaken for anyone else. It’s rarer still to encounter one who seems to go beyond this to invent a new language that’s all their own.
But that, dazzlingly, is what Vivienne Franzmann does in Pests, then uses it to unlock a world of pain and let us in.
This is the story of Pink and Rolly, two sisters trapped in a tiny rotting world. Their little family has been divided as much as it’s ever been together, by time in separate care homes and time in jail. At the start of the play though, Rolly, with nowhere else to turn, pregnant and just out of prison, has gravitated back to her sister and her filthy flat once again.
The story that unfolds is a darkly magical vision of how poisonous even the deepest love can be; how two people can hold each other up and tear each other down at the same time. As Rolly tries to look towards some sort of future, Pink clings to the past and listens to the Spice Girls Wannabe, with its upbeat but meaningless instructions for life, on endless repeat.
The way these sisters talk to each other is unlike anything you’ll ever have heard in a theatre. Franzmann spent years as a teacher and worked closely with the fascinating Clean Break theatre, meeting women who are or have been in prison. It’s clear she picked up a lot from both these experiences, but it seems to me that the dialogue of the play is not a mere impersonation of any one reality. Pink and Rolly speak a magpie language patched together from their experiences, constructed according to their own rules, with its own texture and rhythms. Sometimes learned from each other, sometimes baffling to each other, it wordlessly expresses both their unbreakable closeness and the widening gulf between them.
Ellie Kendrick and Sinéad Matthews devour this foreign language, speaking it as naturally as if they grew up with it themselves, sensitive to all of its secrets. Both are wonderful: raw, honest, focused. These girls are so different to the kind of people we normally see represented on stage that it’s to the credit of everyone involved that there’s no whiff of patronisation about this production, just empathy and understanding.
This production has a quiet elegance and sophistication that belies its seeming chaos. Lucy Morrison’s direction is so lightly stamped it feels almost invisible (in the best way possible), never getting in the way of the story, but lying silently behind the total control and clarity you feel in the heartbeat of this show. The sound design by Emma Laxton is some of the best I’ve ever heard – rich and atmospheric but wedded so completely to the energy and undercurrents of the performances that again you more feel than notice it.
Joanne Scotcher’s set (made entirely of duvets, mattresses and sofas – so close to the land of my dreams it’s scary) manages to conjure both the inner and outer worlds of the characters with magical realism, especially when painted with Kim Beveridge’s hauntingly abstract and yet somehow specific projections.
This is an extraordinary play, but not entirely perfect. Towards the end Franzmann has her characters state things that have already been more eloquently expressed in a hundred subtle ways, and this perhaps robs the ending of some of its power.
Altogether though this is a truly unique play, offering insights into worlds theatre has rarely visited, and it could not be better served by a cast and crew in harmony with every note of its strange and beautiful music.