Interview: Benny Ainsworth on Vermin, ‘a dark and twisted modern-day fairytale’

by Jim Keaveney

Benny Ainsworth’s Vermin, which opens for previews tomorrow at the Arcola Theatre following a successful Edinburgh Fringe run, sees besotted couple Billy (played by Ainsworth himself) and Rachel (Sally Paffett) discover a rat problem in their first home. But under their floorboards is a much darker, deep-rooted horror the couple must confront – no matter how damaging or deadly.

I caught up with Ainsworth to find out more about the play and its real-life inspiration.

Q&A with Benny Ainsworth

What can you tell us about Vermin?

It’s a dark and twisted modern-day fairytale. In some ways, it’s a kitchen sink drama about an eccentric South London couple dealing with rats, but what really sets it apart is the way it lunges towards the paranormal, the fantastical, and the darkest depths of depravity. Think Pinter with a dollop of Del Toro and a dash of Tarantino.

What was your original inspiration for the play, and how much has it evolved from that initial idea?

I live sandwiched between restaurants, which has made the space under my floorboards a haven for rats at various points over the years, which isn’t pleasant, but it is true. I really grew to hate them for the way they interfered with my day to day. The noises they make are insidious and maddening. I enjoyed the idea that a couple could find meaning in such an infestation, in the form of hope, rage, grief and even love. While wrestling with that concept I found a monologue about loss I had written a year or so earlier – and knew immediately it could act as a kind of cornerstone for those themes to grow around.

Benny Ainsworth in Vermin.

Is it daunting to be staging the play again following the success of the Edinburgh Fringe run last year?

The Triptych team know the show so well by now that putting it up doesn’t feel too daunting, but I definitely still get butterflies when I think of the space. I love the Arcola, it’s a theatre I’ve visited regularly over the years, and it feels special to be putting Vermin on there, it’s a fantastic pairing of work and venue.

You’re also starring in the play alongside Sally Paffett; what is it like to perform in something you’ve written?

I play Billy, which is a part I actually wrote with another actor in mind. We filmed a version with him, but when it came to taking the play to Edinburgh we needed to assess costs, so I took the role because it was the easiest and cheapest option available at the time. I love performing the play, partly because it’s a joy to be opposite Sally, who plays Rachel. She’s a powerful and generous actor, and it never feels like I’m playing a part I wrote. In the moment, it feels very real, and we negotiate with each other collaboratively while telling this brutal story.

Finally, how would you describe Vermin to someone considering buying a ticket for the show?

It’s a show that puts the audience through the wringer, intense and unrelenting from the word “go”. It’ll have you howling with laughter, recoiling in disgust and it’s likely to fill your eyes up with tears as well. A brutal, beautiful, and undeniably human hour of theatre that will feel like five minutes.

Vermin is at the Arcola Theatre from 14 March to 1 April