Pests, Royal Court

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There is something a little uncomfortable about watching Pests. While playwright Vivienne Franzmann, who wrote the play as a product of her residency with Clean Break and her visits to women’s prisons, insists that it is not voyeuristic, it is hard not to feel a little queasy about the experience of watching two damaged, vulnerable individuals sink further and further into poverty and addiction. The roles of victim and observer are difficult to shake off, even if we as audience members are made to feel increasingly complicit.

The two individuals in question are sisters Pink and Rolly; both in and out of prison, both struggling with heroin addictions. At the play’s opening, it is Rolly who has just finished doing her time, returning home to Pink heavily pregnant but puffed with hope. The tidal pull of her old life, however, is hard to resist. Rolly might want to move away and get a job, but Pink has other ideas, and their familial bonds are tough to sever. Possibilities slowly ebb away as the sisters’ “nest” closes in around them and their mutually dependent relationship becomes ever more toxic. Abuse, meanwhile, lurks around the edges of the play, never far from sight. It’s almost unremittingly bleak stuff, yet brutally compelling with it.

All of this said, the play’s harsher edges are tempered by humanity and – surprisingly – humour. The volatile central relationship is one built on fantasies, affectionately traded insults (“you lazy flea-infested skank”) and a shared past that knits them inextricably together. The sisters also share a unique slang-based language that Franzmann has invented, which combines childlike utterances, playful flourishes and hard urban edges. In performance, it’s initially disorientating but easily picked up, quickly enveloping us in Pink and Rolly’s world. There is the sense that this language protects them somehow, offering a retreat back into childhood while simultaneously acting as a kind of armour. It can be fierce one moment (“totalicious cuntface”) and tender the next (“I is blue wiv sorrows that I ain’t a better girl for you”). Some coinings, like “gnaw” for heroin, bring with them a startlingly apt series of associations.

The relationship between the two sisters is made all the more compelling by the electric performances of Sinead Matthews and Ellie Kendrick. As Pink, Matthews is all vulnerability and jagged edges, parading her toughness while she breaks inside. The mental illness that she wrestles with is delicately handled; Kim Beveridge’s video projections hint at a world only Pink can see, while Matthews’ frantic raking of her hair suggests a woman scrabbling to hold her thoughts together. Kendrick’s Rolly is gentler and quieter, with moments of girlish charm and wonder, yet she has a hardness about her that is resolute where Pink’s is brittle.

One of the triumphs of the production is Joanna Scotcher’s set design, which carries the heavy burden of realising Pink and Rolly’s whole world. Their “nest”, a striking mound of stained mattresses, is poised between naturalism and fantasy, at once displaying very real signs of squalor and nodding to childhood dens and dreams. Despite using decidedly ordinary objects, their combination creates an appropriately surreal sort of space that is both playground and prison for the two women. Surrounding the room is a skeletal framework, full of gaps, suggesting an open but imprisoning cage. The physical bars may have gone, but others still remain.

And if Pink and Rolly are in a cage, that leaves us on the outside looking in. After a while grappling with this perspective, how it made me feel, and its ethical complications, it feels no less knotty. But it’s worth briefly pausing over Franzmann’s title. The single word, Pests, implies the way in which society (particularly a society in which those disadvantaged by the system are cruelly pitted against one another) might see these women. Pests, vermin, drains on the state. But these characters are just women; strong, funny, vulnerable women; women who have been let down at every turn, not least by the prison system. If Clean Break can make more people see that, then maybe the queasiness is justified.

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School Links Are Proving an Education

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Originally written for The Stage.

In straitened times, collaboration is a word that seems to be constantly on the lips of those working in theatre. While this is no reason to drop the fight for arts funding, financial challenges have had the silver lining of producing a number of surprising but fruitful partnerships, be they between fellow artists, artists and venues, or across organisations.

Among these collaborations, some of the most creative and supportive are those that have developed between theatre makers and higher education institutions. This is not a new link, as universities and drama schools have long nurtured the next generation’s theatre makers, but now several organisations are looking at how to strengthen, build and innovate these connections, offering benefits that go both ways.

In many cases, such partnerships are born out of financial necessity. Clean Break, for example, have a 14-year, “multi-faceted” relationship with Royal Central School of Speech and Drama which was originally part of a funded education initiative, but their more recent partnerships with institutions including the University of the Arts and Rose Bruford had “an economic imperative” alongside the broader goal of widening participation. Director and writer Vicky Jones, meanwhile, admits that a real advantage of DryWrite’s partnership with Oxford School of Drama is that they do not have to raise funds for the projects they collaborate on.

Although higher education institutions are also facing cuts, universities and drama schools usually still have more resources at their disposal than independent artists – resources which are increasingly being shared. James Stenhouse, one half of performance duo Action Hero, explains that a great benefit of their relationship with the University of Chichester is the opportunity this affords them to make work in a well resourced environment, an opportunity they might not otherwise have.

Often the starting point for more extended partnerships is a simple teaching relationship which then develops into something deeper. Practitioners from Clean Break regularly deliver lectures for Central, while the foundation of DryWrite’s relationship with Oxford School of Drama is the company’s collaboration on the students’ third year show, which forms a cornerstone of their course. DryWrite now work to deliver a “unique and bespoke” final piece with third year students, bringing in playwrights such as Patrick Marber, Penelope Skinner and James Graham.

However, as Stenhouse is keen to point out, independent theatre makers do not necessarily have to take on regular teaching posts in order to make a living. Despite Action Hero’s long relationship with the University of Chichester, neither Stenhouse nor fellow artist Gemma Paintin are on the staff, and Stenhouse stresses the danger of getting “caught in a loop where we’re training the next generation of artists to teach the next generation of artists”.

In an attempt to break this loop, several of the organisations nurturing such relationships point to their vital role in bridging the gap between higher education and the reality of the theatre industry. At the most basic level, theatre companies working in partnership with higher education organisations can offer work experience for students, but often relationships extend much further than this.

Paul Hunter of Told by an Idiot, whose relationship with RADA was the product of “completely artistic reasons”, explains that the school’s principal Edward Kemp was “very interested in the notion of actors making more of their own work”. As a result, Told by an Idiot have begun developing work with students right from its earliest stages, a practice that they hope to build on. Similarly, one of the crucial aims of the University of Chichester’s relationship with Action Hero – and, more recently, with artists’ collective Forest Fringe – is to offer their students a real sense of what it means to be a working artist.

While most of these relationships have developed through a combination of necessity, accident and artistic curiosity, the longstanding partnership between Accidental Collective and the University of Kent has roots that go back as far as the company’s inception. When co-artistic directors Daisy Orton and Pablo Pakula decided that they wanted to make work together after graduating, the university offered them the opportunity to become their first supported graduate company, acting as “guinea pigs” for a new initiative to retain theatre makers in the region.

The company have since taught at the university, collaborated with academics on a number of research projects, events and publications, and established Pot Luck, a performance platform supporting contemporary theatre makers in Kent. “It’s set us on a very particular path,” says Pakula, recognising how rooted they now are in the local area. “Our practice has been strongly shaped by the region, and by our position between the university and the region. We have, in some ways, acted as a bridge.”

For Sam Hodges, the new artistic director of the Nuffield Theatre, it is important that the theatre’s relationship with the University of Southampton – on whose campus it sits – stretches further than just its arts departments. Since taking the reins he has been working simultaneously on a number of new initiatives, many of which link the activities of the theatre with the university’s leading science and engineering departments, with the aim of creating a “pooled vision and strategy”.

“It makes sense that in a bid to perfectly reflect and embody the qualities of its environment, the theatre should create work that is provocative and intellectually stimulating, provide opportunities of training and professional development, and develop a profile and reputation which reaches well beyond Southampton into the national and international field,” Hodges explains.

Perhaps the most exciting element of these emerging partnerships is their potential to create unique and unexpected outcomes, often through the collision of different artistic approaches. Hodges’ attempt to bring together art and science is one such instance, while the pairing of Told by an Idiot’s highly visual aesthetic with the more traditional actor training of RADA is another prime example. These unanticipated benefits can even have international reach, as with the cultural exchange that the University of Chichester have helped to establish between Action Hero, Forest Fringe and a group of artists in San Francisco.

The real opportunity of these new collaborations, as Hunter recognises, is to open up both artists and students to new possibilities. “Sometimes I think you can learn and be provoked more by going to a place that feels different, rather than aligning yourself always with people who feel familiar.”

Billy the Girl, Soho Theatre

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Clean Break have forged a strong reputation for shining a light on the criminal justice system, offering vital female perspectives on stories that are often hidden. Katie Hims’ new play for the company, however, suggests that the most difficult aspect of incarceration might not be prison itself, but the challenge of adjusting to freedom.

The eponymous Billy is fresh out of prison – not for the first time – and determined to turn her life around. Brandishing fruit and rhapsodising about her new fitness regime, Billy has a “positive mental attitude”. Unfortunately, her positivity fails to extend to the mother she goes home to, for whom the return of her wayward daughter is the last thing she wants. Banned from crossing the threshold of her family home, Billy instead finds shelter in the caravan pitched up outside, from which she does battle with the past and tries to cling onto hope for the future.

Hims’ play is essentially a family drama, tightly focused around Billy, her mother Ingrid and her younger sister Amber. At its best, it explores the complex, fraught and occasionally tender relationships between the trio, all of whom defiantly refuse to conform to straightforward definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Billy teeters between infectious optimism and a dangerous urge for self-destruction; Ingrid is vulnerable one moment and manipulative the next; Amber is an apparent angel who goes shoplifting when she should be at choir practice. There is certainly love somewhere between them, but it is surrounded by the detritus of blame, resentment and regret.

This messy tangle of personalities and emotions would be material enough for a rich exploration of life after prison, but Billy the Girl is restrictively wedded to a structure of secrecy and revelation. The play tantalisingly brushes against moments of raw emotional truth, before frustratingly abandoning them in favour of the punch of a final twist. This denouement, while satisfying the narrative arc that we have come to expect from plays of this kind (damaging secrecy, dropped hints, climactic confession), feels unnecessarily contrived – a trick calculated to inject a fresh burst of drama rather than a revelation that feels truthful to the characters that have been so carefully crafted.

Rather than the uneven plot, it is through these characters, convincingly fleshed out by Hims, director Lucy Morrison and the cast, that the play really compels. Billy in particular is relentlessly, almost exhaustingly captivating at the centre of events. As played by Danusia Samal, she seems to feel with every last sinew, investing both hope and despair with unsustainably explosive energy. Christine Entwisle’s Ingrid is her polar opposite, each movement sighing with the fatigue of the years, while Naomi Ackie as Amber ricochets between the two, cheerfully but frantically attempting to reconcile them.

The emotional baggage heaved on stage by the three characters is reflected in Joanna Scotcher’s detailed, conspicuously cluttered design. The back garden of Ingrid’s home, dominated by the structure of the caravan where Billy takes refuge, is full of stuff. At first glance it seems straightforwardly naturalistic, but as the play goes on the boxes upon boxes that crowd the stage make their presence increasingly felt; this is no normal backyard mess, but rather a space that resonates with the conflicted states of mind of the women who populate it. The caravan too is loaded with meaning beyond its practical use, becoming a self-contained but flimsy symbol of escape – suggesting movement while ironically rooted to the spot.

Speaking as part of a panel discussion after the show, Hims explained that it was important to her that the play, despite all its heartbreak, should offer a hopeful note. This is evident both within the plot and – more successfully – at the level of character. Whatever its other flaws, Billy the Girl offers us three female protagonists with humour and resilience; characters who are allowed to be vulnerable without ever feeling like victims and who come messily, complicatedly and brilliantly to life on stage.