(c) Katherine Leedale

(c) Katherine Leedale

Pests is about two sisters, Rolly and Pink, who live in a tiny, rotting room and have nothing in the world but each other. They even communicate in their own way. That’s the very first thing that struck Ellie Kendrick and Sinead Matthews, who play Rolly and Pink respectively: Pests’s rich, poetic language. Matthews says Vivienne Franzmann, the writer, has “taken street language, and expanded on it and created her own, which is beautiful to hear and… jagged as well.” Kendrick was fascinated by its unlocatable nature – it’s the language of a “separate world that these two characters inhabit, together”.

It’s fitting, for a play about their separation: separation from care, from networks of support, and from other sources of love. Rolly and Pink have a difficult history: Rolly had foster parents, whereas Pink was stuck in a care-home. As the play begins, Rolly’s just got back from prison. The premise might not sound familiar. That’s because it’s about people living on the fringes of society, with mental illnesses, people that Matthews says, as a society “we completely ignore. I guess that’s why Viv called it Pests. Because they’re treated like vermin.”

Pests seeks to show their story, how it came to be that their horizons don’t extend past their front door. In doing so it tries to depict the different worlds of the characters. Kendrick says, “we see a lot of it through Pink’s reality – she’s suffering from her own psychoses – which you can actually see on stage in the play, which Rolly, my character, doesn’t see.” This is key to showing the audience a life they’re not normally exposed to, that they might struggle to imagine.

Pests was commissioned by Clean Break, the women-only theatre company that works with current and ex-offenders. It’s directed by Clean Break’s Head of Artistic Programming, Lucy Morrison. Franzmann, answering questions via email, doesn’t see the relationship with Clean Break or the commission as changing the nature of her work: “my obligation to them is the same as it is for any other piece. It’s to tell the truth as I see it. Even if the truth may be unpalatable or worrying or uncomfortable – that’s the job.”

That job has become “an examination of how and why women end up in prison and those ideas vibrate all the way through it.” Often these are reasons like mental illness, neglect, abuse, a history of care, addiction, rape or poverty – and for Franzmann, “to put these women into the current prison system is immoral. That’s what drove me to write Pests.”

It’s a stark message. Kendrick “can’t really put it in any other words than this… how society fucks over people who aren’t wealthy a lot of the time. The reason these two characters are in this situation is that there aren’t enough support structures in society for people who are in a vulnerable state due to their mental health or due to their financial status. I think that what really comes across is that the people who are in these situations are more often than not pushed to the side, ignored, forgotten about.”

It’s a strong statement, at a time when already inadequate welfare provisions are being dismantled or filleted by cuts. It’s a message that places a certain set of obligations on the performers: Kendrick says the play’s “very dark, and the lazy thing to do would be to assume that as an actor you just can get up and do it – it was important to root them in real life. We’ve done a lot of research so that the so that that heaviness or darkness doesn’t just seem ‘other’. It’s not just purely dramatically ‘dark’, we wanted everything we say and do to be rooted in experience.”

As part of this, they’ve rehearsed and researched at a prison. Matthews talks about this as important for ensuring their performances felt real or authentic. They did a couple of scenes to prisoners, without providing any context, and “they immediately recognised that world, and the recognised the story. They immediately knew which one had been brought up in care. They knew.”

With this play, spending, as Kendrick says, “all day, every day, inside a character’s head,” raises some issues for the performers, particularly when the character is “one who is more different from me than any other character I’ve played.” They had to lay down some ground-rules: “we stopped referring to ourselves in character as ‘I’. When we’re talking about the play we’d have to say ‘Rolly’, so ‘Rolly does this to Pink’, not ‘I do this to you’, because there’s so much going on and the issues are so deep that we have to have some kind of structure to distance ourselves from it.”

Several hours after the interview, Kendrick goes out of her way to contact me and clarify what she said. “When I said Rolly was the most unlike me of any character I’ve played I suppose I really meant that I have always played characters from comparatively privileged backgrounds and she is from a space on the borders of society that I have not experienced.” The point of Pests is that the audience will probably not have experienced it either.

That clarification characterises the deep concern those involved with this production have about the plight of women prisoners. It’s hard not to admire their fervency and commitment. Because the routes into prison often sound like Franzmann describes the play, “dark and brutal and fierce and dreamy and nightmarish.” For that reason alone, Pests sounds worth a watch.

Pests is at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester from 12 – 22 March, and at the Royal Court from 27 March to 3 May, before touring to Edinburgh, Liverpool, Plymouth and Birmingham. For more information, visit Clean Break’s website.