“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.
“It is a truly wonderful mash-up. Joyful and triumphant.”
‘Tis the season to be silly. That’s all you need to know really. I could end the review here, but my editor wouldn’t be too happy. He’d tear it up and tell me to start again. Which is exactly what Charles Court Opera have done with the original Christmas story. Everything you thought you knew about the Nativity is lying crumpled in the wastepaper bin. They call “The Nativity Panto” an ‘adaptation’ of the tale that sparked the festive season. I call it a demolotion. Or deconstruction maybe. And then they lost the blueprint. Undaunted, however, writer John Savournin and composer/lyricist David Eaton have picked up the pieces from their blurred memories and sharp imaginations to recreate a show that is inventive, hilarious, irreverent, magical, surreal and, to use Pythonesque parlance, just downright silly.
Joseph and Mary Christmas live in the North Pole. Joseph is a workaholic toymaker. All Mary wants for Christmas is a baby. A holy holly bush grants her wish and miraculously she is bulging and ready to drop; a fact that Joseph is ingenuously accepting of. Meanwhile the joy-sucking Jack Frost and his sidekick Snowflake threaten to spoil Christmas for everyone. From there the bizarre adventure begins, and the cast and audience have an absolute ball on the journey together. We rapidly stop trying to dodge the Christmas cracker jokes as innuendos crescendo and double-entendres thunder through the dialogue, and we let ourselves be swept along for the joyous ride. Rachel Szmukler’s gingerbread and candy set evolves with the action like clockwork, while Mia Wallden’s inventive and colourful costumes are the frosting on the cake.
Emily Cairns, Meriel Cunningham, Jennie Jacobs, Matthew Kellett and Catrine Kirkman all possess an energy and versatility that lifts the spirits and indelibly etches laughter lines onto even the most poker face that dares enter the auditorium. The beauty of pantomime is that it appeals to all ages with its mix of slapstick and adult humour. It is an artform that requires a high standard of stagecraft and talent, and this company have it by the sleighload. The five cast members deliver a blizzard of characters (you long to be a fly on the wall backstage to witness how they cope with the costume changes). None can be singled out as each performance is outstanding. Not that you can anyway – their flexibility with accents, expressions, impersonation and interpretation defies recognition as they dish up their feast of familiar faces. Characters we know and love but seen here in a completely different light. You never knew that Rudolph’s fear of flying stemmed from deep rooted self-image issues, did you? Or that the Three Kings could tango like there’s no tomorrow.
David Eaton’s music and lyrics feature original compositions and parodies of popular songs. The Spice Girls, A-ha, Barry Manilow and even David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, among others, provide the backing to Eaton’s humorously clever lyrics; interspersed with some quite beautiful song writing that never feels out of context. Eaton himself is on keyboards providing the musical accompaniment, with drummer Dave Jennings, who also adds some finely timed percussive sound effects. The eclecticism of the soundtrack is matched by the many references in the script, both biblical and contemporary, from King Herod to the Lion King. And pretty much everything in between. It is a truly wonderful mash-up. Joyful and triumphant.
Everything you thought you knew about the nativity is torn apart in this wondrous gift of a show, as the true origins are irreverently revealed. But I shall say no more. ‘Tis the season to be silly. That’s all you need to know really.