The Maltings Theatre
Reviewed – 29th October 2021
“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.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Pavel Gonevski
The Maltings Theatre
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