[Review:] VERMIN, Etcetera Theatre, London.
Written by Benny Ainsworth and directed by Michael Parker, this is a very unique and darkly entertaining play. Its characters are most original in their quirks and lusts, and plot, for the most part, is coherent and well structured.
I shall start with acting. Benny Ainsworth (playing Billy) and Sally Paffett (playing Rachel) have a great command of their roles, are sure of their character intentions and credible in their approaches, particularly Paffett. Their characterisations are wonderful, and expressivity and emotional range are most impressive. However, more action is required from Ainsworth when Paffett is delivering her monologues alone. When Ainsworth delivers his, Paffett still remains attentive and energised, engaged in his words, paying extra attention to include characteristic shakes of the head, smiles and movements; during hers, however, Ainsworth stays inert and somewhat expressionless, to the point where one could argue that he is actually no longer acting. I should also note his failure to conceal the blood bags he uses later in the play appropriately. Nevertheless, Ainsworth is an excellent performer, overall, energised, confident and captivating. The two also demonstrate great attentiveness to naturalistic vocal delivery, as far as the text will allow, and both have great vocal expressivity, too.
The written text is most unique and offers explicit, detailed and enriched grounds for a promising performance. Whilst naturalism in dialogue is not entirely achieved, as alluded to above, the relationship between and the detailing of these characters is superb. I would just pay greater attention to plot development and character development, for the reasons I shall list below. Comedy is gory and sensationalist, peculiar and original. The nonlinear fragmentation of scenes and subplots is also most effective here, allowing for dynamism and variety in the material. Direct audience address is also consistent throughout this performance and the performer-audience relationship is maintained throughout whilst the characters' stories are recounted to us, leading to excellent stylistic continuity — which seems standard, but this is actually denotative of great talent and skill, given how rare this stylistic awareness seems to be amongst playwrights today. I should also mention that audience address is handled wonderfully by the two actors, too, who do not restrict the ambit of their gaze and who address all audience members consistently. A wonderfully conceived and written text.
In terms of staging, lighting states (tech design and operation by Ben Sorab) are minimal, and this does not pose a problem for this performance, as the use of space, the expressivity of the actors, and the material itself, which remains extensive in its range of topics, memories and contexts, are enough to enliven the stage. Costume is appropriate for these performers, coinciding with the text’s natural propensity to humanise and naturalise these characters, which is most befitting for such villainous and murderous individuals from which it might be otherwise easy to detach. Topography is well-conceived, and the simplicity of the two chairs and their utilisation is sufficiently facilitative and grounding for this performance. I am also most impressed by the music composed by Sorab that precedes this performance. This music is most congruous and preparatory as well as well-composed.
On to the negatives. The greatest issues for this performance are continuity, the structuring of provocative elements, and tempo management.
I shall address the former first, which mostly refers to Rachel’s character. Starting as a peculiar and unique character, sharing in Billy’s dark interest in the suicide of the man at the train station in the beginning of this performance and in the murder of Jeff the Cat, Rachel suddenly transforms into a rather weakly defined and amicable character at the appearance of the first rat. She becomes somewhat of a cliché, rather predictably replacing the spirit of her stillborn child with that of the rodents she befriends, aggravated by her layabout husband, his ignorance towards her and his obsession with tools.
Poisoning him at the end, one could say that she rather redeems herself, but I am afraid this ending is rather unoriginal, and not to mention predictable, especially with the conspicuous colour change in Billy’s commonplace cheesecake. Put bluntly, I remain rather disappointed with how her character turns out and disappointed by the ending which feels cheap and slapdash. To go from miming with explicit verbal detail the cracking of the back legs of a neighbour's pet cat with garden shears and mircrowaving a rat to its explosive death to a subtle poisoning that we do not even see beyond Billy’s coughing blood is a great anticlimax. And why her suicide? This ought to be better elucidated. We really gain an insight into Billy's character, and his fondness for chicken nuggets and tools should not be forgotten her, but further detailing of Rachel's character is needed to ensure that she becomes more than this maternal cliché.
I should also mention here that this disinterest that Billy demonstrates and to which Rachel draws our attention during the discovery of the loss of their child is discontinuous with the plotline; at this point in the relationship, the two were madly in love, and Billy was as concerned by the miscarriage as Rachel was, as evidenced by his subsequent inability to even hear the child’s name. I do find it bizarre that either of them, especially to such a degree as Rachel, should be so emotionally invested in a child at all, given their apparent psychopathy. Conversely, I should expect they would be perhaps thrilled at the morbid idea of losing a child.
On to the second issue, which I should prelude with the elucidation that I personally had no issue with the darker elements of this text; I found them rather rich and imaginative. However, a dark text still requires two things: 1) we still need to be eased into material if it is to be considered comedic and [paradoxically] lighthearted, pleasing or cathartic, and 2) dark material needs to serve a purpose for the text itself and not just for the sensationalist instrumentalisation of the audience’s squeamishness [in other words: not merely for punchy, gory dramatic effect]. Jeff’s murder is far too extreme to include so early on. Again, it weakens the final scenes, but it also stops us in our tracks too prematurely in the performance from developing a bond with the characters. We must still understand Billy’s actions, if not enjoy them, and the later revelation that all of this is due to some sort of OCD feels like an afterthought or a retrospective justification, not a clever aspect of his psychology.
This explanation ought to come before, to allow a humanisation of the characters to prepare us for and ground us in their dark compulsions and desires, to give us a reason to tolerate being subjected to the horrors and an understanding as to why it is necessary to our reading of this story. The added vulnerability and likability of the average pet cat is also a factor that works against our enjoyment of the characters here. So early on in the play, we do not want to feel detached from and uncomfortable with these characters whose actions we must still observe for the best part of an hour. It is worth stressing here that whilst it is Billy specifically who details this event, Rachel is not exempt from our detachment, given that she enjoys, condones and encourages it: “My favourite.”
Again, the problem is not that the material is “too dark” but that it is poorly organised, and the creatives will find this apparent when re-studying the silence that befell the house that had previously comprised an entirely engaged and laughing audience up until the elaboration upon Jeff’s murder. This collective discomfort and reticence is a driving factor to simply destroy any subsequent comedic aspects of the play. Perhaps the story should be left with the bird, and the story of the cat should be ‘kept for later’ once we have learned more about Billy’s character and the context in which these characters later find themselves.
Finally, tempo management. Also an editorial issue, particularly in the beginning, where the back-and-forth between the two characters is rather too structured and hence inorganic, rhythm is a recurring issue in this performance which is in danger of becoming too univocal. Disruptions, where one character tells the other to stop talking to let them deliver their part alone, for example, are a good way of breaking this up, but their number becomes too significant, and the emotional effect this request has on the characters becomes too predictable and samey. More variation is required here, and such disruptions alone should not be relied upon to add rhythmic range. Furthermore, the actors, at times, speed through the text, and [this is mainly true of Paffett] do not allow enough time for audience laughter, leading to the repetition of their lines that the audience might not have heard. The two need to be better aware of their pacing and its naturalism and of these moments of respite where comedy can be permitted to settle in the house.
As one final, somewhat pedantic note, if the actors are to stay back to thank the audience for coming and to detail the future aspirations of their work, etc., I should recommend that Paffett's demeanour be rectified during this. She seemed, for some reason, deflated and dejected, and this is by no means a desirable final energy with which one wishes to leave an audience.
All of these things noted, this still remains a most enjoyable and intelligent performance. It is well-conceived and performed marvellously.