“As a period piece, both of the time it is set, and the time in which it was created, Vinegar Tom is a haunting piece of theatre”
Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom, just opened at the Maltings Theatre in St. Albans, marks the 45th anniversary of the play’s premiere by the feminist theatre collective, Monstrous Regiment. Written at the same time as Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, Vinegar Tom explores similar subjects set in an England coming apart at the seams during the Civil War. Both plays present political (and polemical) material which resonates just as powerfully today, but Vinegar Tom is the more overtly feminist piece. It also incorporates music hall touches well suited to the style of a 1970s touring company like Monstrous Regiment, but which, ironically, date a show for twenty first century audiences no longer familiar with the music hall tradition.
Vinegar Tom is not about witches, as Churchill herself says. Instead she aimed to write a play for Monstrous Regiment that highlighted the plight of women living on the fringes of society. Her play is also about how unique, nonconformist women end up on those fringes (both then and now). With no means of visible support, and vulnerable as spinsters or widows, such women initially struggle as objects of suspicion among their neighbours. Ultimately, they become victims of a paranoid age looking for scapegoats. Despite the disclaimer, Churchill creates a compelling and believable narrative for the origins of witch hunts in seventeenth century England.
The Maltings Theatre revival of Vinegar Tom, directed by Matthew Parker, is a bold attempt to place the themes of the play front and centre. On a barely there set, designed by Sorcha Corcoran, Parker has assembled a talented cast (with particularly spirited performances by Emilia Harrild and Melissa Shirley Rose). The set is complemented by Alice McNicholas’ beautiful costumes. The music (composed by Maria Haïk Escudero) introduces a rock element to the show. This update is a departure from the more folk influenced music created for the original production by Monstrous Regiment. This revival features instead, cast members in period influenced costume picking up electric instruments for the songs that punctuate each scene’s end. These musical moments are arresting visuals, and certainly introduce a more “ominous” vibe. But the overall effect overwhelms Churchill’s dialogue, and the shape of the original play. The lighter, more comic (and teachable) moments recede.
In all Churchill’s plays, it’s the words you listen for. And in Vinegar Tom (the play takes its name from the cat of one of the characters) the lyrics are as powerful as the scenes that precede them. Each scene in is a punch in the gut about women’s treatment in the seventeenth century (and by extension, our own). Escudero’s music is potent, drawing on many rock influences, and the performers who play it, are more than up to the task. Ultimately, however, the power of the musical element is just too much for the play—and the space. The Maltings is an intimate black box theatre well suited to the original, touring, production of Vinegar Tom—but in this 2021 update, the intimacy, and hence the impact of each scene as the actors play it, gets lost. It’s not impossible to reimagine Vinegar Tom as a rock musical, but it would be a different beast.
As a period piece, both of the time it is set, and the time in which it was created, Vinegar Tom is a haunting piece of theatre. It stands as testament to the quality of the work produced by 60s and 70s feminist theatre collectives. So do make the trip to St. Albans if you have never seen this play before—it’s vintage Churchill, and a timely revival.
“an astonishing ensemble of six actors, whose craftsmanship and energy matches the electricity of Churchill’s words”
It’s fifty years since Caryl Churchill’s short play “Abortive” was broadcast on BBC Radio 3, but it still retains its sense of urgency and resonance today, complete with Churchill’s trademark gift for turning a pre-conceived and fashionable idea on its head. It is one of four of her earlier plays being revived to mark the re-opening of Greenwich Theatre, collectively titled “Bad Days and Odd Nights. James Haddrell’s production is unveiled without fanfare, but once word gets out it will certainly kick up a storm.
Churchill has always been a thrilling and challenging writer. Her dialogue and characterisation are so rich and layered that it often justifies repeat viewing. Haddrell is well aware of the need to do justice to the writing and has assembled an astonishing ensemble of six actors, whose craftsmanship and energy matches the electricity of Churchill’s words. Initially daunted by a running time of two and a half hours, you come away from this show still wanting more.
The evening is varied and dynamic, while still retaining the sense of a common theme running through the different set pieces. “Seagulls” is up first, and probably the most personal and reflective of the short plays. Kerrie Taylor is Valerie, an ordinary housewife who has the gift of moving objects by sheer willpower. Propelled into a showbiz career by her caring yet hard-headed manager (Gracy Goldman) she is beset with self-doubt; exacerbated by a meeting with a long-time supposed fan of hers (Bonnie Baddoo). The three women brilliantly expose the contradictory layers of these characters: Taylor’s mix of vulnerability and insufferability, with Goldman and Baddoo both hinting at a slight menace behind the devotion.
“Three More Sleepless Nights” introduces us to Churchill’s raw, invective, rhythmic and overlapping dialogue as we witness Frank (Paul McGann) and Margaret (Goldman – unrecognisable from the last scenario). The verbal warfare escalates but stops short of becoming physical, yet the bruises are just as visible. The reality of McGann’s performance is such that you feel you want to intervene, but Goldman’s Margaret gives as good as she gets. It cuts to a second sleepless night. A silent night. All calm, but far from bright. Pete (Dan Gaisford) and Dawn (Verna Vyas) are busy not communicating. Gaisford and Vyas manage to convey that this soporific detachment is just as dangerous as the previous scene’s underlying threat of violence. Finally, the third night we see Pete and Margaret together. A much better match. Happiness ever after. Yeah, right…!
“Abortive” is perhaps the most enigmatic piece of the evening, with a greater complexity of emotions running through it. Colin and Roz (McGann and Taylor) are a well-heeled couple. Aware of their privilege, Colin had previously taken in and cared for Billy – an unseen refugee – in an act of charity. Billy repaid their hospitality by raping Roz. McGann and Taylor are totally convincing as they unpeel their doubts and fears, dealing with the aftermath of the subsequent abortion. Slightly unnerving is Colin’s covert inference that he is not altogether convinced his wife was raped. An anachronism that might jar more nowadays than in the seventies, but symbolic of the honesty of Churchill’s writing and McGann’s authentic performance. These thoughts exist – right or wrong. But then Churchill hits us with a gorgeous counterpoint when Roz quips “… abortion is overrated. Men make it such a melodramatic topic!”
“Not Not Not Not Not Enough Oxygen”, is set in 2010, an imagined and dystopian, futuristic London; from the perspective of when it was written. People live in one-room cellblocks, the air is thick with smoke and the streets littered with danger, and with a feral population of ‘fanatics’ who are out to kill either themselves or others. Mick (Dan Gaisford) lives alone with his memories of a time when birdsong could be heard outside his window and is waiting for the return of his daughter (Bonnie Baddoo), a rich celebrity whom Mick hopes will fund his escape to a cottage in the country. Meanwhile Vivian (Verna Vyas), a desperate neighbour who looks up to Mick, wants in on the action. This short play runs the danger of drifting from both the general theme of the whole evening, but also from reality itself. Yet the performances and conviction of the cast anchor the piece in credibility. Verna Vyas, in particular, is phenomenal as the electro-charged, babbling, Vivian.
This company have taken on, and given us (the audience), a challenge. But if they can pull it off with such success, so can we. For too long we have been starved of the oxygen of theatre (yes – not not not not not enough of it). “Bad Days and Odd Nights” is a much-needed lifeline and, not just a glimpse of how it used to be, but a spotlight on the return to normality – to what live theatre is all about.