You know when you’re at school, and you’re forced to read a play and analyse every word to death, and it’s not until way later that you see it onstage that you feel you’re actually allowed to appreciate it?
Pests is the complete opposite of that.
It is expertly acted, exceptionally well staged and lit in with an eerie, spine-tingling brilliance that would make audiences a century ago decry ‘sorcery!’.
But the play itself is so heavy with symbolism – and symbolism of the most depressing, morally self-flagelating kind – that it’s very difficult to enjoy it as a great performance, and very tempting to wish it had been left as an A-Level textual analysis paper.
Vivienne Franzmann’s play is set in the bowels of the London underworld, following the story of pregnant ex-convict Rolly (Ellie Kendrick) and her controlling drug addict sister Pink (Sinéad Matthews).
Ambitiously, Franzmann has them speaking in dialect – and this is where the ground begins to get shaky. ‘What was you gogglin’ on the gogglebox?’ initially comes across as quirky and fresh, but as the plot becomes darker, the patois-like slang starts to jar.
There are some blasts of real genius in the script – such as when the two sisters reminisce about their time on the beach together as children. With marvellous visualism, Pink describes the feeling of oneness with the world she experienced when having her first ‘bleed’, and how she bled into a hole in the sand and saw it washed away by the sea. It is beautiful and poetic.
But as time ticks by, the sisters (and the storyline) veer into the world of lost causes. A scene where they lie on the stage, drugged up to the nines and groaning, is where it all gets a bit too much.
The script also has the tendency to feel very much like someone trying to gauge ‘the lives of others’. Lines like ‘You gonna get all middle class, chatting shit about rocketing house prices’ seemed in themselves very ‘middle class’ and rather superior.
And as for the symbolism – references to the Wizard of Oz increasingly took over from the plot. Ruby slippers taped onto feet tosymbolise control, the song ‘if I only had a brain’ to symbolise failed aspirations, endless repetitions of the words ‘there’s no place like home’ symbolising dependency and disappointment… I missed my highlighter pen and bullet-point examiner’s marking scheme.
The production itself was stunning.
Matthews and Kendrick balanced their roles exceptionally well. Matthews, as the manipulative Pink, bounced with a hyperactive mania from foot to foot and around and around the piles of rotten, torn mattresses that made up the chaotic stage. At the moments when Pink descended into depression and psychotic panic, Matthews transformed with frightening flexibility, curling into a ball, twitching like an animal and howling.
Kendrick played Rolly with appropriate innocence and sullenness. The character is apparently ‘simple’ and ‘stupid’ (she cannot read and is easily conned by her sister’s lies) yet has a dogged determination to better herself that puts her far ahead of streetwise yet deranged Pink.
Fabiana Piccoli’s lighting design was almost a character unto itself. Gut-churning stains spread across corners of the stage, great reddish-black boreholes opened up like bloody wounds in the mattresses, and little flashes of fire ignited here and there to punctuate the levels trauma going on in the characters’ minds and lives.
You could say that, if the script had been easier, there wouldn’t have been room for any of this innovative, inspired staging. Even so, it was hard not to wish that all those deep-and-meaningfuls had stayed on the page – there were just too much of them for a show this long with no interval.
Maybe I’m just too shallow. If you can stand (or maybe you even like?) things that are bleak and harrowing, then Pests might be just the night for you.
Personally, I left feeling like a wrung sponge.