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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Pests
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs   Spring 2014

Vivienne Franzmann's new play was developed with Clean Break, the theatre company of past and present women prisoners, and there is no doubt that its audience would find much to recognise and identify with in her portrait of two women at the very bottom of the social heap. 

The rest of us, lacking that connection, are too likely to find the play predictable and repetitive, its limited insights spread too thin over ninety minutes. 

Newly released from prison, barely literate and very pregnant, Rolly returns to the squalid squat of her older sister Pink. Against the odds, Rolly actually seems to have benefited from her time inside, drug-free, learning to read, with a supportive friend and the prospects of a job – all of which Pink sets out methodically to sabotage out of jealousy and the fear that Rolly might rise above her.

I've not given anything away. Pink's response is absolutely clear in the opening scene and, while it takes the rest of the play for her methods and motives to be spelled out, it is all telegraphed long in advance, allowing for no surprises or revelations. 

Rolly will try to escape this life and fail and maybe try again, while seemingly strong and confident Pink will be revealed to be a mass of insecurities and near-madness. 

We will care, thanks largely to the efforts of the two actresses, but we will not know the characters or their limited world very much better at the end than we could have extrapolated from the first few minutes.

Franzmann certainly doesn't invite us in, setting up barriers of language and stage symbolism that drive us to analyse intellectually rather than connect emotionally, and audience time spent decoding or appreciating either language or symbols is attention drawn away from the content of the play. 

Both women speak a patois that carries the slang of the underclass almost as far as Clockwork Orange: 'What been da happinins, please do telt, thanks very muchness'. 

And the action is punctuated by the appearance and disappearance of a pool of light that spreads over the stage like The Blob, evidently representing Pink's growing and receding madness, though you must refer to the printed text to confirm that it is a director's compromise with the playwright's more extensive and elaborate symbolic vocabulary. 

Director Lucy Morrison and actors Ellie Kendrick (Rolly) and Sinad Matthews (Pink) work hard to flesh out the characters and to make what was telegraphed and predictable seem like new revelations, and the play less thin and static than it is.

Gerald Berkowitz


Review - Pests - Royal Court Theatre 2014
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