by Vivienne Franzmann, Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court, 27 March – 3 May 2014.
“Pink loves Rolly. Rolly loves Pink. And Pink loves getting bombed off her face.”
Pregnant Rolly has been released from prison, her few belongings in a transparent plastic bag and she’s knocking at the door of her sister Pink’s shabby ruin of a flat. Pink is a volatile mass of energy, attitude and twitches; still on the needle and still on the game. In contrast Rolly is clean or at least on methadone, has support and the prospect of a job and a future. An escape. But can Pink let her go? She loves her – that much is clear – but resentment and jealousy grows; she knows Rolly won’t need her any more. Just as she left Pink behind in the children’s home when she was fostered, now she’s going to leave her again. Pink needs to keep her close, keep her in the world she knows, pull her back under. Does she do it from malice or spite or does she truly believe it’s for the best? And for whom? I really don’t know. Love comes in many guises and who am I to say that this isn’t one of them.
Pink sabotages Rolly’s chances, makes sure the job and the flat fall through leaving her with no choices and nowhere to go. She makes sure she knows just how much she suffered while Rolly got all the breaks – dance lessons, fostered, looked after away from the home where the men lined up with Mars bars and teddy bears and pound coins.
As the play progresses both sisters unravel further and the scenes get shorter and more aggressive. We don’t know exactly what abuses brought them to this point but we can see the effects. Some scenes are powerful – Pink forcibly taping the “red rouge shimmy ‘no place like home’ shoes” to Rolly’s feet – while others seem underplayed. The removal of Rolly’s baby is almost thrown away – deliberately? – and the impact is muted. Maybe that’s how it was for her – to think about the baby is too much, too painful, too inevitable; best to carry on as if it never happened. That’s what Pink did after all.
Joanna Scotcher’s set design is more rat’s nest than home – abandoned mattresses, grubby duvets, places to burrow and hide. Lit by a flickering strip light, surrounded by bars and littered with the detritus of poverty it feels more of a jail than any cell. I was less convinced by the creeping video images, representative of Pink’s increasing mental disintegration. Sinead Matthews’ performance didn’t need any help from trickery. The physicality she brought to the role, constantly moving, all twitches and tics, said it without the effects. When the scars of self harm are revealed at the end you see the broken woman she keeps hidden under the bravado and you see that Rolly is sometimes the strong one.
Ellie Kendrick showed us the vulnerability of Rolly, the softness. Compared to manic Pink she was still, deliberate and slow but there were hints of a hardness underneath from the beginning. She seems to have had the better life but the four years she had with Mike and Jayne didn’t keep her out of jail. She has a containment, a protective shell, that contrasts perfectly with Pink’s open energy. What was she thinking? Was she thinking? Pink had always done the thinking for her, for both of them and while May took on that role for a while Pink wouldn’t – couldn’t – allow that to continue. Rolly is hers. And she is the one who can always break open whatever cocoon Rolly gathers around herself.
Despite the clever set and the energy Kendrick and especially Matthews bring to their performances it isn’t a perfect play. The plot is overly signposted and it could have lost at least ten minutes. At times it’s savagely funny, at times heartbreakingly hopeless – it’s the wrong word to say I enjoyed it but I’m very glad to have seen it, despite its imperfections.
If I wanted to be uncharitable it’s a stylised version of drug addiction for the theatre going middle classes, sanitised just enough to allow us to care about Pink and Rolly. It’s not that simple though – it can’t be – and as it is the result of Franzmann working with Clean Break it must be given more validity. Clean Break work with women who have been in prison or who are in danger of being imprisoned. Wisely the dialect of Pink and Rolly is part invented, although it has the layered flavours of the real thing – a hint of patois and pigin and a nod to the outsiders of A Clockwork Orange. And it’s very cleverly written; I did wonder for the first few minutes if I’d follow the words at all but it soon dropped into place. The addition of a more complex vocabulary for Pink gave depth and hinted at an education, a women more widely read than it’d be too easy to assume. References to Gulliver’s Travels and Ernest Hemingway slipped seamlessly into her often unstoppable flow of words.
Ultimately Pests gives no answers, suggests no solutions and shows little hope. Neither sister can escape their environment and seem destined to repeat the circle of abuse and addiction, loyalty and revenge until one – or both – of them die. In fact I did expect the final scene to be a death but that would have been too neat and tidy. It would have been an end, a resolution of sorts.
For Pink and Rolly there is no end.