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.

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.