Brimstone & Treacle
Reviewed – 6 May 2017
“A 4 star performance of a 1970’s play with thought-provoking and controversial content”
Dennis Potter, who died in 1994, was an acclaimed playwright best known for his BBC TV serials Pennies From Heaven and The Singing Detective. In 1976 he wrote Brimstone and Treacle which gets a revival at the popular Hope Theatre, Islington.
The original television play was withdrawn shortly before transmission due it containing scenes that were deemed too offensive to be shown in the 70’s. It was eventually broadcast some 11 years later though it premiered on stage in 1977 and a film version starring Sting was released in 1982.
The question to be posed today is will it be as shocking as it was felt to be 40 years ago?
In short the answer is yes. It is without doubt a fine piece of work expertly directed by the award winning Matthew Parker but it carries a warning – there are disturbing scenes of sexual violence and extreme racism which many may find offensive.
The play is about Martin, a young man who thinks he’s the devil. He visits Mr & Mrs Bates, a couple caring for their bedridden daughter Pattie who was a victim of a road accident 2 years ago that left her brain damaged and profoundly disabled. The room is set in a suburb of North London and the play takes place over two days in September 1977.
The set designed by Rachael Ryan is simple yet it reflects perfectly the era with its brown patterned wallpaper, coffee set, crochet blanket and utility furniture. The performance is enhanced by devilish sound and flickering lights.
Mrs Bates has taken the larger share of the caring. She has dedicated the last two years to care for her daughter and has an optimistic view of her recovery and that she will return to her normal self in time. Her husband in contrast takes a more cynical view of her prognosis and seems resigned to her remaining in her current state. He refers unlovingly to her as ‘a cabbage’.
Martin cleverly makes his way into the Bates’ home claiming to know Pattie and that once had been her fiancé. Whilst there is some doubting by the Bates of his existence in their daughter’s life they accept his offer of care and the trouble soon begins. Having gained their confidence through his nicer than nice approach, left alone he rapes her. It makes for uncomfortable viewing.
The performance demanded attention throughout and the concluding scene made you leave thinking just how that ending came about. The clues to that were hidden earlier in the dialogue.
Fergus Leatham plays the role of Martin with assurance. He leaves the viewer feeling uncomfortable in his presence and his asides to the audience reinforce the feeling he is playing the role of a very unpleasant man.
Paul Clayton portrays the bullish Mr Bates well and Stephanie Beattie is superb as the downtrodden Mrs Bates. Olivia Beardsley has the difficult task of playing Pattie. She maintains a believable brain injured patient throughout the play. Her jerky and involuntary writhing movements were expertly acted.
The audience on our review night appeared to thoroughly enjoy their night at the theatre. At the end of the performance there was an enthusiastic applause which continued for some time until the cast returned for a second curtain call. It was a four star performance by a talented cast and whilst recommended it is a show for those with a strong disposition.
Brimstone and Treacle
plays at the Hope Theatre
until May 20th