Theatre Review







Gilt & Grime

Vinegar Tom




By Caryl Churchill

Directed by Tom Platten

Joint Artistic Director – Gilt & Grime

The Cobden Club

2-26 July 2008








A review by David Hermann for EXTRA! EXTRA!


When Caryl Churchill’s 17th Century witch-hunt parable Vinegar Tom received its world premiere in 1976, the second wave of feminism had reached its peak, and crashing down upon polite society came a powerful wash of uncomfortable truths. In the social arena women had awoken to their position within sexist power structures, bras had burned, from this side of the Atlantic The Female Eunuch had swept the world, the personal had become political, and Caryl Churchill had a lot to point out: that hysteria is a man-made diagnosis designed to keep women in line, that men are uncomfortable and obsessed with menstruation, that sexual rejection alone is enough to breed murderous hatred of women, and that moral frameworks, like religion, are instrumentalised to suit the patriarchal need. At the time, these were relatively new and deeply necessary lessons, and the socialist Caryl Churchill’s writing cannot be discussed adequately without reference to that great theatrical lesson-teaching-tool: the socialist Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theatre.

Alas, misers have cried for over a century, the term “Brechtian” is little more than an excuse for bad theatre - and usually, I refuse to chime in - but, woefully, after seeing last night’s Gilt & Grime production of Vinegar Tom, I found myself inclined to agree. 

First-off: there is hope, yet, for Tom Platten’s first directing project for the Gilt & Grime company, but in its current manifestation, it suffers from a number of serious flaws that nullify its impact and leave it bordering on the unbearable.

In light of the inflation of all things honky-tonk in recent years, the decision to convert the play’s many songs into a cabaret act makes the company vulnerable to accusations of stylistic pandering, especially since the cabaret-elements seem so awkwardly spatchcocked in between scenes of 17th Century English country-life that one perceives both cabaret and drama as unwelcome interruptions of each other.

Ah, the Brechtian apologist will snarl, but awkwardness and stark contrast are exactly what we’re aiming for: your discomfort, audience, is our triumph! Fair enough, retorts the annoyed theatre-goer, I get that, but surely the discomfort should lie in the play’s (sufficiently disturbing) message, rather than in what seems like directorial thoughtlessness. 

Before you assume, understandably, that the cabaret elements are in themselves lacking, let me hasten to add that composer Harry Blake has done a formidable job in fashioning a very fine, atmospheric and entirely original score that sits well around Caryl Churchill’s bulky lyrics, and (for, presumably, it was Mr. Blake, himself) in playing the piano before and in accompaniment of the show with perfect velocity and not a single misplaced note.

While the set was suitably minimalist, I couldn’t help but wonder why it was there, at all. The Epic theatre asks of us the rough outline of a set to convey the idea of a certain place without going into unnecessary detail, and only if the depiction of that place is crucial to the understanding of the play. What designer Simon Kenny and Associate Designer Ruth Sutcliffe have come up with, however, is a generous length of gauze, tucked into curtain-like folds and stapled to a plywood frame - which, in itself, is far from objectionable, but it seemed to do nothing to manifest or enhance the 17th Century rural atmosphere. Neither was it incorporated into the action or put to any practical use - for someone to hide within the folds of material, for example - and as such, it appeared superfluous, even distracting. A bare view of the backstage and some sober scaffolding would have been more appropriate to highlight the play’s mood of bleakness, emotional solitude and despair.

As my discerning companion remarked quite accurately, the sole motivation for the implementation of gauze may have come from lighting designer Pablo Fernandez Baz, whose intentions remain dubious. Far from Brecht’s strict call to reduce lighting to a tool for signifying scene change in order to prevent its effect on the mood set by the text, the grand arsenal of gels employed by Fernandez Baz chased the stage and everyone on it from one violently mellifluous shade of fuschia, turquoise and lime-green to another. We tried desperately, but failed to work out in what way this was conducive to the understanding of the play, or even to the mood that was actually intended.

But what, you may ask - apart from Caryl Chruchill’s own theatrical leanings, of course - made us so certain that this was a production with Brechtian intent? It was the acting. The fact that a cast of twelve with many impressive CVs (Including Emmerdale’s Sally Knyvette) seemed so entirely detached from their characters that they acted like a GCSE-Drama group half of the way through a three-week rehearsal process can only mean one thing: Epic Theatre has struck, again! Brecht didn’t want his audience to forget that theatre is not, in fact, reality, but merely its loosely outlined depiction for didactic purposes. These people were acting badly on purpose! It simply cannot have been any other way.

Brecht wanted us to see the actor outside the character, and under Tom Platten’s direction this cast has done him proud - in the most unfortunate and unpalatable way!

Which is simply a pity. Because it was plainly discernible that none of the twelve lacked either talent, nor training; nor the rehearsal-time necessary to lay down some truly memorable performances. They were all, quite clearly, fine, sensitive actors, tragically stunted by this rigid theatrical superstition. The only player who moved constantly a cut above the rest was Rebecca Hands-Wicks. She seemed, quite cheerfully, to ignore the perilous Epic dogma and allowed herself to identify with the character of dogged, gullible Susan, whose personal descent into tragedy she portrayed so spellbindingly that her performance, alone, made the production watchable to the end.

Please, please, please, Gilt & Grime! You’re so much better than this. Exorcise the Epic demons within you and let us in, so we may experience real theatre and go home thinking-, rather than complaining about it.


Evening performances at 7.30pm:
Wednesday 2nd,
Wednesday 9th,
Wednesday 16th,
Wednesday 23rd and
Thursday 24th July

Matinee performances at 2.00pm:
Saturday 5th,
Saturday 12th,
Saturday 19th
Saturday 26th July

Tickets: £15 (£10 concessions)






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