The play’s themes shine, yet the humour and music fall short
The story of a community in 16th century England shows how a seemingly thoughtless comment can snowball into a witch trial in Vinegar Tom.
Margery doesn’t accuse her neighbour, Joan, of being a witch because she’s a convenient target nor with any malicious intent at the beginning. Joan curses out Margery just before a string of bad luck: Joan’s cows start dying, her butter won’t set, and she gets hit with a bad headache. She sees what she wants to see in these coincidences, and everything else from that point on only confirms her belief. The exploration of this phenomenon is the heart of the play, and its strongest point. Through Margery and Joan’s stories, audience members come to understand the root of how witch accusations begin.
Another strong point is a monologue by Goody, a female character, on her reasons for being a witchfinder. She unintentionally reveals some of the gaps of logic in the witch hunts, but is sincere in her belief that she’s doing the right thing. The audience, with the benefit of three hundred years of hindsight, can see clean through the hypocrisy and understand why certain women are accused of being witches.
That being said, Vinegar Tom has some tone problems, especially in its first act. The Phoenix Theatre describes the play as “raw, satirical, political, and mad as hell!” However, the satirical aspect of playwright Caryl Churchill is hard to parse in this production. There are moments in the first act when you can see the black comedy that Churchill intended. Some of the accusations of witchcraft are objectively funny. However, some of these are treated with an unsuitable serious weight; for example, when Jack accuses Alice of literally stealing his genitals and keeping them in a box. All the actors take this direction, veering a little close to overacting.
In the second act, this decision makes sense as there’s only one way a witch trial ends. And despite how harmless and silly the initial accusations might seem, the Witchfinder General still goes through with all the brutal witch-finding methods to force the witches to ‘confess.’ No matter how ridiculous, women are still being threatened, and the show doesn’t let the audience forget that. Whether or not the black comedy would have worked in the first act if played up more, I cannot say for sure.
Some musical numbers were also weak points in the production. The songs are fine, but they feel separate from the story. They aren’t sung by the characters, but a group of disconnected singers. As the play goes on, the more literal the songs become and they feel rather pointless. There are many scenes where the song undercuts the weight of the moment.
The set design and the lighting, however, are incredible in Vinegar Tom. The lighting establishes the tone and its interactions with the set lead to some fantastic imagery. No spoilers, but there is a pit in the middle of the stage with some trees sticking out of it.
Despite its flaws, Vinegar Tom shows the mindset of how a witch hunt starts. That twisted logic is fascinating to watch, especially as the antagonists remain steadfast in believing their own goodness.
Vinegar Tom is playing at the Phoenix Theatre, Feb. 16 – Feb. 25, with streaming available Feb. 23, 24, and 25. Ticket information can be found on the Phoenix’s website.