Vermin poses an important question: have trigger warnings become devalued? Have we seen so many content warnings averting us to the passing mention of this or that topic that we breeze past them even when, as in this case, the usher makes a point of drawing our attention to them, in between scanning tickets and asking us to squish up because it’s a full house?
Vermin is the gothic tale of Rachel and Billy, whose whirlwind romance is derailed by the arrival of rats in their new home. While such a development would certainly unsettle the best of us, for Rachel and Billy it is the trigger that inflames mental illness and, in its original sense, hysteria.
The story is told by Rachel and Billy themselves, in a jokey counterpoint where they interrupt, overlap, tease and occasionally try to hijack the other’s narrative. It is revealing of the playful and affectionate couple they were before the rats came but also, as horrible acts of violence are described, suggestive of a terrible lack of empathy. The same could not be said of the audience, many of whom were cringing at the sadism being related in a rueful but still shockingly blithe manner. If theatre is meant to make the audience feel something, Vermin certainly achieves on that score.
Staging is very simple, just two chairs in an otherwise empty space, with no changes of lighting or soundscape. So it is to the credit of Benny Ainsworth’s writing, and his and Sally Paffett’s performances, that the audience feels such foreboding and revulsion. It relies for its effect on graphic descriptions of violence and suffering, and on the unnerving contrast between the normality of these cheery South Londoners and the abnormality of their actions.
Vermin is a well-executed, no-frills production, with a satisfying narrative arc that brings the young couple together, sees them fall apart and then, perhaps, come back together again. As accomplished as it is, I’m not sure I would personally hurry back to see it, given how fully it lives up to its content warnings, but horror lovers will appreciate its dark, dark humour and the nervous anticipation of its gruesome events. It might just make you see rats in a more sympathetic light. It is a perfect fit for Old Red Lion’s Grimfest.
Written by: Benny Ainsworth
Directed by: Michael Parker
Produced by: Triptych Theatre
Vermin played as part of Old Red Lion’s GrimFest season and has now completed its current run.