Susan Elkin | 30 Oct 2021 22:31pm
The second Seventeenth Century-set show about witch hunts I’ve seen in a fortnight (cf The Witchfinder’s Sister at Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch), Caryl Churchill’s 1976 piece now creaks a bit. Despite the sterling efforts of director Matthew Parker and his talented cast it’s bitty and it’s no “Rock Musical”. The songs feel as if they’ve been bolted on for a change of mood – somewhere between Kurt Weill and Andrew Lloyd Webber.
That said, there are some terrific performances in this show. Emilia Harrild is superlatively good as Alice, the sassy prostitute whose mother is accused of witchcraft. She is sardonic, angry, undaunted even in distress and Harrild has a truly fabulous singing voice whether the number is lyrical or furiously rhythmic.
Jill Priest is moving as poor, misunderstood Joan and Melissa Shirley Rose finds lots of depth in Alice’s friend, Susan. Emma Thrower’s monologue as Goody, assisting the witch finder (Jon Bonner – strong work) is show-stoppingly chilling as she describes marks and growths on women’s bodies. They were regarded as the marks of the devil but everyone in a twenty first century audience can hear the symptoms of breast cancer, cysts and other medical conditions.
Many of the cast are versatile actor-musos too. Three electric guitars are picked up for songs and several cast members play basic keyboard. It’s odd, though that most of the songs are presented statically almost as if the cast briefly transforms into a choir.
Like all plays and novels about witchcraft the piece explores the nature of mass hysteria and fear which led to the bullying – and ultimately much worse – women on the edges of their community. How are Alice and Joan supposed to live if they’re not married? And this in a society which celebrates the activity of the witch Hunter and pays him for getting women hanged. Marriage, this feminist play, shows clearly is the only viable insurance policy. And of course those issues are still with us in various forms.
I was very sad to see only 28 people present on press night in a theatre (configured in the round with characters waiting in the corners) for over 90. Press nights are usually busy, buzzy occasions but this one was strangely subdued.
First published by Sardines: https://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/review/vinegar-tom/