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Vinegar Tom by Caryl Churchill at the Maltings Theatre

Matthew Parker revives Caryl Churchill’s 1976 rock musical Vinegar Tom in a 45th-anniversary production at the Maltings Theatre, an intimate space in the heart of St Albans. The theatre is laid out in thrust formation for this epic tale of women and witchcraft. Set in a small 17th century English village, something goes awry when a herd of cattle – at the farm run by Jack and Margery – become unwell. The pair decide to blame it on Alice and her mother Joan as an act of witchery. Meanwhile, local teenager Betty is accused of the same crime for not wanting to marry, and Susan for wanting to abort an unwanted pregnancy. It takes a visit from out of town, the well-respected witchfinder Henry Packer, to determine the women’s fate.

VINEGAR TOM Maltings Theatre - photo by Pavel Gonevski.
VINEGAR TOM Maltings Theatre – photo by Pavel Gonevski.

An energetic cast keep the pace of Churchill’s text ploughing ahead, with three rostra on Sorcha Corcoran’s set allowing for some dynamic staging as the scenes pop up in different places around the thrust. Alice McNicholas’s costumes take on a very rural 17th-century look, save for the brightly coloured jackets and top hats which appear in a gorgeously camp music-hall style number at the end of the show. I think I found the costuming a bit mismatched. The play is broken up with contemporary rock songs, and whilst the clash of time periods is an exciting innovation in Churchill’s text, I thought more of this could be played with through the general design aesthetic. Rather than seamlessly blending the two worlds together, there are slightly clunky transitions from scene to song, with the staging of the numbers a little static and repetitive.

The brief but very well-executed fight moments are extremely slick, however, I think some sort of movement or choreo would benefit the music numbers. The ‘rock’ of the genre just sort of equates to ‘loud’, with lots of foot-stomping, angry pointing and very intense eye contact. Who are the audience in the space? Are we spectators at a rock concert? Witnesses to misogynistic torture? It’s hard to determine whether we were being yelled at as passive onlookers to violence or meant to feel immersed in the music.

There are some exciting performances on display – Jill Priest and Lottie Davies make for a very entertaining double act in the final number, and it would’ve been great to have seen more of Lauren Somerville, whose voice stood out during her solos and harmonies, and who captured a subtle sort of earnest poignancy in her appearances. Cathy Conneff also makes for a very engaging Margery.

Michael Bird’s sound design creates an eerie, intense soundscape, which I would’ve liked to have seen pushed even further. It’s also really brilliant to see an Intimacy Consultant, Asha Jennings-Grant, credited in the programme.

Parker’s 2020 production of Henry V at the Roman Theatre (also produced by OVO) had a wonderful sense of company spirit, and he has clearly found that same level of vibrancy and community in this very dark tale. Churchill’s work is often densely absurdist, surreal and packed with political nuance and urgency. I think this revival, though full of energy for sure, could have done with delving a little deeper into the nuances and complexities of Churchill’s style, drawing out the contemporary resonances in its production choices, rather than hoping they would just naturally surface from the text alone.

3 Star Review

Review by Joseph Winer

Vinegar Tom examines gender and power relationships through the lens of 17th-century witchcraft trials in England. The play was inspired by the Women’s Rights Act in 1970 and explored the thought that women were treated unequally to men in England, both at the time in which the play takes place, and the time in which the play was written.

VINEGAR TOM
by Caryl Churchill
Directed by: Matthew Parker
https://ovo.org.uk/

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