BY BENNY AINSWORTH
DIRECTOR. MICHAEL PARKER
TILL 1ST APRIL
MaRCH 16th, 2023
Having met on a train journey that was halted due to an ‘incident’ Billy, Benny Ainsworth, and Rachel, Sally Paffett, were willing to forget for a moment the horror and desturbance around them, kiss, and fall in love. This ‘world-wind’ romance sees them becoming engaged, then married, and finally finding their dream home. Barely moved in, Billy and Rachel soon discover that they have rats—not just one or two but enough to cause them concern and plenty of annoyance. But as Billy's OCD goes into overdrive and he starts to see the rats as his mortal enemies, Rachel begins to see them differently and starts to form a bond with them. Billy and Rachel are connected by a traumatic event that triggers and re-triggers their past traumatic experiences and adds to their already painful grief, leading them both to an inevitable, heartbreaking conclusion.
In 2022, ahead of his Edinburgh Fringe run, we spoke to Benny Ainsworth about VERMIN, in which he said that while writing the play in lockdown, he was facing an actual infestation of rats, ‘so I got to pour a lot of my frustrations into the text,’ and it showed. There is a tightness to writer/performer Ainsworth’s text that can only come from someone who has put a fair part of themselves and their experiences into their writing. The real infestation that Ainsworth experienced and the infestation that his characters Billy and Rachel face are the glue of the piece. It is this universal truth that gives VERMIN an added sense of authenticity and makes Billy and Rachel all the more believable.
This relatability is key, as both characters seem so unlike one another. Billy is a bloke; he suffers from a form of OCD and is prone to violence. In that first meeting between Billy and Rachel on the train, Ainsworth introduces Billy in a way that is instantly romantic and touching, and at the same time, as you look into Billy’s eyes and as he looks at Rachel, you also feel a man who is lost. Perhaps he is too far gone, and in Rachel he sees someone he can latch onto, a lifeline he never expected; in her he sees someone who understands his past, his pain, and his idiosyncrasies, and sees past all that.
With Rachel, Ainsworth has created a character who is longing for a prince—someone who would sweep her off her feet and carry her to his castle, someone who would protect her. In those first moments with Billy, the audience is privy to a young woman who is confident, outspoken, and frank but is also holding back something—her own past grief. As they both peer out the window, trying desperately to get a better look at the carnage, one cannot help but feel that an unspoken pact was forged between the two. As everyone on their train is either oblivious to what has happened or what is happening, Billy and Rachel fuse themselves and their emotions to each other and to this moment on the train.
"Both characters in this scene create the feeling that there are five or six people on stage; the movement is so quick that you are unable to lose focus and you can’t take your eyes off them."
There is great care taken in the way the audience builds this connection with Billy and Rachel, who walk onto the stage and begin to talk. The actors, free of the fourth wall, talk directly to their audience; in fact, we are there to see them, and this forges an early trust between the actors and the audience, which they maintain throughout the production. Ainsworth isn’t afraid to push his audiences barriers of taste and continues to push them further and further the more the piece goes on. As Billy recounts a story of his youthful dalliance involving small creatures and a neighbours cat, Ainsworth’s writing here is explicit and detailed. One could feel the air in the room evaporate as Billy tells his story. Looking on from the right side of him is Rachel, a pained but sympathetic look etched on her face as her husband details something he, on multiple occasions, chalks up to him just being a kid. In his description, the audience understands Billy a little better; there is a joy, an excitement, in the way he describes this period. The response from his parents seems equally cruel and somewhat limited—did they take him to see someone, did they talk to him about it, or did the trauma of his act get trumped by the trauma of his father's response?
Ainsworth blends horror, gore, comedy, and heartfelt tragedy with such easy yet never dilutes the power of his words or his characters experiences. His comedy verges at times on slapstick, which is best captured when Rachel explains her detour to a local pet shop. The story, which has some early moments of tension, is a masterful piece of writing mixed with an utterly tremendous performance from Paffett, who wonderfully captures the playful innocence of Rachel. It is in this scene that the audience feels Rachel’s pain, which seems almost incurable at this point. And in the flashback scenes later on at the doctor’s office and hospital, scenes in which director Michael Parker really creates such powerful depth for both text and actors, are difficult to watch, with Paffett, once again, conveying a pain and grief that are almost indescribable. In these scenes both characters create the feeling that there are five or six people on stage; the movement is so quick that you are unable to lose focus. The more we understand Rachel’s story, the more we understand how similar and connected she and Billy are. With an old trauma of Billy’s mixed with a new trauma of Rachel’s, both going unaddressed and unchecked, is anyone strong enough to be able to navigate through the grief Billy and Rachel experienced?
Studio 2 at the Arcola is the perfect place to watch a production like VERMIN. The staging, consisting of two chairs, is simple and effective, with director Parker utilising this simplicity to give his actors a great deal of space and movement to build up their world in the minds of their audiences. Alex Lewer’s lighting and Ben Sorab’s sound design aid the flow of Ainsworth's text and provide both Paffett and Ainsworth with some warmth and comfort on stage.
There is a bond between leads Benny Ainsworth and Sally Paffett that is felt the second they walk on stage. This recounting of Billy and Rachel's relationship is perhaps their purgatory, forever left in this constant cycle of repeating the highs and lows of this life they share together, with the audience left wondering how different and more fulfilled their lives would be if they got the help or support they needed. There are moments between Ainsworth and Paffett when they argue or disagree that allow them to build up and then dissipate the tension, which is brilliant to watch. The humour in Ainsworth’s text that adds a nice cushion for his characters and offers a good respite for the audience.
VERMIN could be viewed as both literal and metaphorical. On the literal side, both the playwright and his characters faced very real rat problems, and on the metaphorical side, the rats may symbolize the internal mayhem, confusion, disgust, frustration, anger, and pain that his characters are feeling. The rats also allow Billy and Rachel to realise the fragility of their relationship; the love that was there has started to ebb away with neither being able to find compromise, and so this inevitable conclusion looms as they pay their dues to their trauma.
Dark comedies are a staple of British culture, be it theatre or film; British audiences have always had a taste for writing that explores and/or exposes the darker sides of British life. From the 1930s to present day, playwrights and screenwriters have been some of our best ethnographers, though they might not always get the credit.
Creating new theatre that maintains this tradition is essential, as it provides playwrights with an opportunity to add their new work to an already impressive bibliography of theatre, and with VERMIN, playwright Benny Ainsworth has done just that. His writing is intelligent, harsh, and brutal at times, but equally deeply touching and honest. Like most skilled writers, he has given a realness to Billy and Rachel, never failing to humanise them in a way that, at times, overwhelms you with an emotional power that is breathtaking.