Pests is a female buddy drama about two sisters, Pink and Rolly, who come from an underclass world of drugs, poverty, lack of education, violence, abuse and prison. The play was commissioned by Clean Break, a company founded in 1979 to assist women offenders and give theatrical voice to their lives and experiences of the penal system. Its author, Vivienne Franzmann, joins a long and illustrious list of women playwrights to write for the group, including Sarah Daniels, Winsome Pinnock and Rebecca Prichard.
Characteristic of Clean Break plays is the attention to the stories of social hardship and vulnerability that allow audiences to understand why women might turn to crime. Pests is no exception. When the play opens, younger sister Rolly has just been released from prison and comes knocking on the door to Pink’s ‘nest’ – a filthy, rundown room, piled high with dirty mattresses and evocative of the girls’ social marginalisation. A heavily pregnant Rolly has cleaned up her act – she’s off the drugs and in prison had a little tutoring in reading and arithmetic. But the ‘clean break’ she is hoping for – the possibility of a job, having her ‘pup’ (baby) and being able to keep it – does not happen. The strong bond that exists between the two sisters ties Rolly to a past in which, from drug addicted Pink’s point of view, there are old scores to settle. And as Pink railroads Rolly’s plans for a better future, so she pulls her sister back into a shared spiral of drug-fuelled, self-destruction.
That things will end badly is a foreseen and foregone conclusion. What captivates is Franzmann’s dramatic dialogue, her ear for constructing a street-urban speak as a shared language between the sisters. It took me a while to tune in. A job is not a job but a ‘jobbage’; a complaint is a ‘complainage’; horror is a ‘horrification’. This kind of language deformation is redolent of the girls’ damaged lives, but also poetic in its rhythmic, linguistic building of their world.
Both performers – Elkiie Kendrick as Rolly and Sinéad Matthews as Pink – appeared ‘at home’ in that world. Matthews’ high energy delivery as the drug-fuelled Pink was especially mesmerising. Early on, her gravelly tones reminded me of a young Kathryn Hunter, an association that in turn made me think of Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker and the two troubled, young girls, Josie and Lilly, in that play. Equally, Rebecca Prichard’s two-hander, girl-gang play, Yard Gal (also a Clean Break production) from 1998 came to mind. Recollecting Yard Gal, a play I continue to admire and to teach, also occasioned me to reflect on what, for all the verve of the writing and accomplishments on the part of the performers, in other ways troubled me about Pests – the play pricks at a social conscience but also allows for a voyeuristic gaze on the part of the audience. It takes a particular writing skill to challenge a privileged theatre audience and not to let them off the social hook; Prichard achieved this with Yard Gal, but socially commendable though it is Franzmann does not quite get there with Pests.