Linda’s life is a mess. Her home is piled high with clutter – collections of broken brollies to match every outfit, shoes that don’t fit her feet or her lifestyle, books to be read one day, lampshades that might come in handy, 400 items of Stevie Wonder memorabilia ... She lives alone - her only company is her hoarded, treasured possessions. And a rat.
Enter Jonathan, pest controller extraordinaire. In order to get rid of the rat, he must first clear away the clutter. The scene is set for a series of emotional confrontations.
From the programme, this appears to be Ellen Robertson’s first full length serious stage play. She was inspired to write it by the American Hoarders: Buried Alive! reality TV series which both documents extreme cases of compulsive hoarding and also attempts a degree of rehabilitation. It is a fascinating subject for a piece of theatre which kept the audience fully engaged throughout.
The central character, Linda, was extremely well-drawn, an intelligent woman with insight into her problems but seething with internal tensions: “like I’m at war with myself all the time”. Cathy Walker conveyed this character very persuasively and touchingly, moving from moments of awkward embarrassment about the mess she lived in to a fiercely emotional reaction to the suggestion that she relinquish any of it.
Jonathan (David Bonnick Jr), in many ways her polar opposite, is less easy to read. Linda describes him as “a mad handsome rat fanatic who likes cleaning”. We can see that although he thinks he can sort out Linda’s life, he has his own problems – a tendency towards displaying OCD (at one point, we watch him spend an age hyper-neatly folding Linda’s shoelaces) and acute social phobia when Linda invites upper middle-class neighbours into her newly decluttered home. The dialogue between the pair is often superb, hitting the nail right on the head, sometimes intensely moving, sometimes hilarious.
I felt more ambivalent about some of the twists and turns in the plot and in the relationship between the two characters, and in their motivations. For instance, they both have a strangely equivocal love-hate relationship with the rat: Linda feels sufficient affection to name it “Toby” yet has called a pest controller to get rid of it; Jonathan has a loathing of rats derived from two particularly harrowing experiences yet feels sufficient affection to want to release them in the fields rather than destroy them. I guess this mirrors the internal tensions they both feel about other aspects of their lives and their consequent difficulty in maintaining a relationship.
The ending of the play was delightfully ambiguous, leaving so many questions unanswered. Will the neighbours turn up for dinner? Will Linda become a social being again? Has she been permanently cured? Or will she surround herself once again with a barricade of objects and use them as “emotional insulation”? Is this the beginning of her future or the beginning of her end?
Nesting works well as a small-scale touring production doing the rounds of village halls. The stage of the tiny Chipping Norton theatre was claustrophobically jam-packed with clobber, and hats off to the stage crew who, dressed for once in white rather than black in pest-control operative overalls, worked furiously throughout the interval to clear away the heaps of cardboard boxes, laundry bags, a washing machine etc and hoover up the detritus. My neighbour wished she could hire them to do the same in her house!