Vinegar Tom

Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom presents a contemporary view of witch trials, focusing on absurd patriarchal depictions of the female gender.

The play addresses historical perceptions of liberated and sexually aware women as being outsiders in society, and how this brought them under persecution. It examines scapegoates in society and how it is still relevant today, be it discrimination against gender, ethnicity, religion or disability.

The play opens with Alice, a 20-year old village girl, clothed in black lace, a red corset and black skirt, which accentuate her overt sensuality and her deemed impurity and darkness as juxtaposed with her friend Susan. Alice (Della Ann Owen) is too artificial in her performance. Her sensuality is too lascivious; biting her lips in front of an unidentified man she appears as more of a Lolita than a witch.

The chemistry between the two characters is questionable although The Man (played by Josh Simpson) is better at conveying the palpable sexual tension this forbidden affair should have. He shows a greater emotional register and stage presence which is significant given that Alice is the main character.

A more successfully portrayed connection is that between the two farmers Jack and Margery, neighbours to Joan, Alice’s mother. Margery (Melanie Harrison) is natural on stage and conveys very well the desperation of her oppressive marriage to the humorous simpleton Jack (Adam Cowdnell). Many of the costumes are splendid and originally designed for the production, Jack’s plaid shirt and drawn on tattoo point at the modern contexts that surround the play.

Other notable performances include those of Susan (Nicola Worthington) a married friend of Alice who, as a result of having multiple children, is at a crossroads about her pregnancy. She stands for the numerous women who suffered physically and emotionally under the burden of repeated child bearing – we find in her echoes of April from Revolutionary Road.

The most enthusiastic and captivating acting in fact comes from minor characters of Kramer (Ryan Smith) and Sprenger (Erin Taylor) who give life to the stage and act as a chorus in key scenes.

SutCo’s production of Vinegar Tom is successful in its technical aspects, in which it excels. The simple yet inventive set revolves around an Alice In Wonderland-style playmat covering the entirety of the stage floor and the effective use of lighting which allows for smooth transitions between the scenes.

The soundtrack is a powerful part of the production ensuring that this play is a chilling experience for the audience. It builds an atmosphere through the sound of cats hissing (‘Vinegar Tom’ is the name of Joan’s cat) and voices whispering ‘witch’, that represent the invisible fear and irrationality alive in the characters’ psyche and her interactions with others.

Vinegar Tom is an unusual production, using dark tales from history to provide metaphors for our modern world. It successfully portrays the climate of fear and suspicion that was present in both the witch hunts of the past, and which can be seen in the media-led witch hunts against sections of society today.

Iris Provias, Forge Arts, 22nd April 2010