Vivienne Franzmann’s commission from Clean Break makes no secret of its birth; this searing, tightly reflexive play is born from close work with women offenders, drawing on themes of drug addiction, mental illness, and their beginnings in troubled childhoods. But it’s also an intimate, soft thing, couched in 90s nostalgia and bedded down in mounds of mattress fluff, as two sisters nurture each other in toxic terms.
Pink and Rolly have a dialect and language of their own. Rolly has just been released from prison, newly clean and full of a whole new set of ideas – she’s even learning to read. But her older sister Pink is still sunk in her old ways, addicted to heroin and failing to find the words to countenance Rolly’s timid escape plan. Rolly wants to work in a hotel in Harpenden with her new friend May; she’s pregnant and desperate to keep the child safe. She and Pink never had that safety, separated as children and brought up in care.
Pink and Rolly are constantly tugged back to their past, as Franzmann’s text revolves around childhood and the childish. These sisters haven’t forgotten childhood fractures – they’ve magnified them and torn them wider open, so damaged by their upbringing they’ve never managed to move beyond it. Pink is addicted to the Spice Girls’ song ‘Wannabe’ as much as her cocktails of legal and illegal drugs, her own assertiveness and agonisingly self-conscious, crop-topped sexuality a half-formed echo of its girl power-list of demands. Sinead Matthews’s brilliant performance is painful to watch, mixing spiky independence and constant physical and imaginative energy with croaking, baby bird vulnerability. As Rolly, Ellie Kendrick is her solider, softer foil. She’s less compelling, but utterly plausible as an everyman woman pushed through a narrative of impossible suffering.
Pink and Rolly’s language is made up of both their accent and half-babytalk slang – and a set of cultural reference points, all anchored to their own memory. In the slightly heavy-footed case of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s red sparkly shoes acquire magic, totemic power for Pink, who’ll go to any lengths to get them and keep them for Rolly. Rolly doesn’t want them – she might share Pink’s distinctive language, but she can’t understand her sister’s undefined, but overwhelming mental world of ill health and hallucinations. These are beautifully expressed by Kim Beveridge’s projections, somewhere between flames and subdividing amoebas, which organically seep from the edge of the stage to menace Pink when she starts to lose control of her situation. They’re part and parcel with Joanna Scotcher’s design, a mound of enticingly, comfortably, yet also repellent, torn mattresses – a nest that’s as familiar, welcoming and utterly toxic as Pink’s flat is to a returning, clean Rolly.
Even as Franzmann’s first play Mogadishu gets dragged through the tabloid-outrage machine for being taught in schools, “400 expletives” distressingly intact, this looks like bleak, shocking stuff. Swear words are just flotsam on a murky mass of institutionalised child abuse, rape, prostitution, heroin injection – it feels like nothing the author encountered on her trips to women’s prisons can have been left out. There’s plenty of humour, too, which feels as closely observed as it’s uncomfortable. Pink and Rolly are observers, as well as observed, mining television for ideas, whether it’s Pink’s comically flamboyant pizza and banana smoothie as part of a half-blended plan to get clean, or her sharper insights into an imagined tv producer’s equally cynical, Pret-a-Manger fuelled schemes to turn around the fortunes of a woman hoarder in a junk-filled flat.
The play’s title Pests is fiercely ironic: the mess Pink and Rolly hoard and hide is hurting them most of all. They rarely emerge to threaten or eat away at the outside world. This makes its pace relentless – it circles and twists in one continuous, chaotic scribble, unbroken by an interval. At its morally grey centre, Pink’s magnetically manipulative energy is disturbing, and upsetting. She’s neither aggressor, nor quite the victim Rolly is, standing, like the play, in comfortless judgement on the system that’s raised and lost her.