Saturday, 5 July 2008

REVIEW: "Vinegar Tom"

(A quick review in between shows. According to Blogspot, this is the RZ's 100th post.)

When the RZ arrived at the oddly posh Cobden Club (in the middle of a not so posh set of housing estates) for the new Gilt and Grime production of Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom, he was given a free programme with a smile. He smiled back and went into the very nice member’s bar (which he couldn’t afford to go to otherwise), looked at the rather cute and pudgy fish swimming in the tank, and sat down on an all-too-comfortable black leather couch to see what he was in for. To his delight, an acquaintance was the rehearsal stage manager. To his semi-delight and possible trepidation, he proceeded to notice a number of contemporaries and alumni from his fine institution.

As house was opened, the RZ headed for the club’s grand hall, greeted by a pair of usherettes in quite low cut tops and dinner jackets and found a seat on a lovely sofa as the remaining audience filtered into a stylish, mirrored room with low lights and high ambiance.

And then the play began.

For those familiar with the works of Caryl Churchill, Vinegar Tom is standard fare. It’s militantly feminist, utilises bizarre techniques to grab one’s attention (in this case Brechtian song insertion, frequently led by the usherettes) and keeps things safely under two hours. It also takes a good 15-20 minutes before anything useful happens, and the final scene comes across as uncomfortably tacked on.

Taking a look at 17th century witch hunts, Churchilll uses feminine sexuality as the grounding for her strands of persecution: the village slut, midwife, and widow are all accused and tortured by the end (it hurts the audience as much as the characters), as is a happily married woman who forces a miscarriage in a fit of despair. The hunt is, of course, sparked off by a childless couple who never have sex and are naturally upstanding Christians, despite the husband begging the slut for a lay early on.

Simon Kenny’s sets are minimal, just some white curtains and a wicker chest. Pablo Baz does what he can with the Cobden stage’s minimal lighting capabilities, relying heavily on white, less white, and red to set tones and moods, but the whole thing is mercilessly minimalist, as is Tom Platten’s direction: there’s a massive “I can be more fringe than you” vibe as if edginess comes from flat acting all around, though the exception is Peter Saracen as upstanding dairyman Jack, last seen in You’ve Been A Wonderful Audience. Readers shouldn’t mistake that as a compliment, however, as the RZ found him an obnoxious whinging prat in both. He did, however, enjoy Moya McGinn and Alice Keedwell’s usherettes, and when the cast had to do little but stand and sing they were at their best.

There’s really not much else to say. If you like your political theatre with a sense of the absurd and the brutal, this Vinegar Tom is a must-see. If, like the RZ, you expect a play about sexuality to actually feature something sexy, you’re better off elsewhere.

Where: Cobden Club
When: Until 26 July. W @ 19:30, Sa @ 14:00, 24 Jul special @ 19:30
How Much: £15 General Admission
Concessions: £10
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £10 for a chance at the surroundings before the show and varied levels of amusement within.
RZ Other Notes: The RZ may love where he studies, but he also has an open disdain for many of the excesses and traits inherent in the productions. While Gilt and Grime are sharper than the average postgrad production he’s seen this year, the trademarks, for better or worse, are all there.

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