The last of the three plays performed by the Third Year Students studying Acting at the University of Northampton, gracing the freezing cold stage of the old Royal Theatre in Northampton, was Vinegar Tom, Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play, an examination of 17th century witchcraft trials in England, with a little Brechtian twist. In many ways, it’s the complete opposite of Laura Wade’s Posh, with the majority of the roles for women, and showing how hard life could be five hundred years ago, as opposed to wallowing in privilege today. Brighter minds than me (the Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, no less) describe it as “a complex and historically expansive investigation of the policing of women’s bodies and desires”. That’s one way of putting it, I suppose. Caryl Churchill, of course, has a substantial reputation as a thoughtful, innovative feminist writer, with her plays Cloud Nine and Top Girls being particularly prized. But Vinegar Tom was completely new to me, and I really had no idea what to expect. For a shallow guy like me, it was simply a growing drama of how the fear of the Devil contaminated society as a whole, so that anyone who did something you didn’t like was branded a witch. The test for a witch would always be something gruesome, designed to satisfy the warped lusts of the witchfinder general, so that, à la Monty Python, if you survived the experience you must be a witch, and if you died you were innocent – but got a quick route to Heaven, so that’s all good then. And of course, you can extrapolate this situation into the present day, with inequality still an issue, and men in authority still knowing what’s best for a woman’s body, no matter what she may think.
Fortunately, the structure of the play is Brecht-lite. Yes, it’s interspersed with hard-hitting, unsentimental songs, and has a brief vaudeville scene that’s just about as opposite from the tough life of the 17th century countryfolk as it’s possible to get; and of course the ceiling full of hangman’s nooses tells you straight away that it’s not going to end well for some of the characters. But it doesn’t have that tedious distancing effect that can sometimes make his works something of a tiresome watch. So that’s great news for the audience. Technically I think this was the most successful of all three of this year’s student productions, with simple but effective light design, great use of the sides and upstage recesses of the Royal, and it would win the award for most unpleasant use of an upturned plank of wood (you had to be there). All this, and really great madrigal-style songs composed by Tristan Pate, hauntingly well sung. I’d pay a good price to get a cast album so that I could hear Evil Women again!
I was instantly enthralled with this piece, from the opening scene between Helena Fenton’s Alice and Benjamin Hampton’s “Man” (one of four roles that he completely makes his own throughout the whole play). It was intimate, funny, honest, teasing, threatening, challenging and heart-breaking all at once. Vocally, I loved the accents that were delivered with total consistency and accuracy; and Miss Fenton really expressed all Alice’s hopes and fears (from the naughty to the demonic) with such conviction that I felt that I was in the presence of someone rather special – she’s definitely going to be One To Watch. But the energy they set up, and the standard they set, permeated through the entire cast and kept going right through the entire 90+ minutes, so much so that I almost didn’t notice there wasn’t an interval. Almost. At my age, I really do need a break after a while!
The whole cast formed a very strong ensemble but each person brought their own touch of magic to the show. Jessica Bridge’s Susan gave us a very emotional and personal insight into the horror of betraying one’s friend because of peer pressure and sheer ignorance. It was a very heartfelt and believable performance. Victoria Rowlands as Joan, Alice’s mother, was a miserable crotchety old whiner but nevertheless she swayed the audience to sympathise with her ultimate fate. She also has a stunning voice! Jennifer Etherington expressed her character Margery’s no-nonsense lack of sentimentality with just the right degree of crispness and harshness. Rachel Graham-Brown superbly conveyed Betty’s primness and natural superiority whilst also letting us see her insecurities and fears; Kundai Kanyama delivered cunning woman Ellen’s insights and bon mots with an entertaining matter-of-factness, as though she were an overworked GP writing out meaningless prescriptions; and April Lissimore was terrific as the witch finder’s assistant, Goody, smugly appreciating the fact that she’s struck it lucky with her job, echoing her boss’s maleficent maxims as she cheerfully helps him pierce the women’s private parts with his witch detector-probe. There’s always someone who lets the sisterhood down.
The men in the cast also gave great support, with a terrific performance from Ruark Gould, as Margery’s husband Jack, fuming that he’s lost his mojo after Alice dismissed his advances; when she grants it back to him, his complacent relief is hilarious. Lewis Hodson is a comedically grim witch finder, Packer, channelling his inner Voldemort, extricating confessions because, I guess, everyone has to have a hobby. He’d be great as the Dentist in Little Shop of Horrors! And Benjamin Hampton, whose opening scene “Man” I’ve already mentioned, gave four excellent characterisations for all his supporting roles, covering a wide range of sophistication (from very to none); his scene with Florence Rees-Waite, where they are both performing on a vaudeville stage as Kramer and Sprenger, the authors of Malleus Maleficarum, the witch hunter’s handbook, was beautifully performed by both. They created a perfect moment of much needed comic relief; they never quite came out with I Say I Say I Say, but you sense it would only be a matter of time.
Something that really struck me – I’d seen these young actors before in either Shrapnel or She Echoes, and what particularly impressed me was how nearly all of them took on totally different kinds of characters in this play than they did in the earlier productions, showing great versatility on their parts. These young actors are NOT going to be typecast!
A production that really gelled together perfectly – a good story, beautifully acted and staged, with exciting and thought-provoking musical interludes and a grand sense of nonsense chucked in for good measure. Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, but with plenty to unsettle and challenge the audience too. I loved it – congratulations to everyone, great work all round.