There’s no pussy-footing about with director Matthew Parker who launches this year’s in-house season at The Hope Theatre in North London with Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle, one of the most controversial and disturbing plays of the late 20th century.
Potter’s 1976 Play for Today, which features the repeated rape of a young, profoundly disabled, accident victim, so scandalised the BBC mandarins that they mothballed the production for 11 years.
It was finally retrieved from the top shelf of the naughty cupboard by Michael Grade who found the courage that had previously escaped the then BBC director of television programmes, Alasdair Milne (who was nauseated by it, apparently).
Brimstone and Treacle isn’t for the faint-hearted. It offends just about everyone with Potter’s trademark provocative, aggressively offensive, dialogue. Did he set out to offend? I think he enjoyed the notoriety.
In this savage parable he attacks race, religion, sex and morality with a glimpse into suburban paranoia, xenophobia and insularity.
Is Matthew Parker out to offend? After last year’s award-winning success with the wholesome Steel Magnolias, I’m guessing that he wants to shake up his repertoire and play Devil’s Advocate.
And it’s not an easy play to stage, particularly in the intimate Hope with intrusive and noisy police sirens constantly blaring in Islington’s Upper Street outside.
Parker has done away with an interval and, despite the play overrunning to 105 minutes on opening night, it was a wise decision, allowing the tension to build without interruption.
Paul Clayton and Stephanie Beattie play Tom and Amy Bates. I hesitate to use the words “a normal suburban couple” but it’s as good a description as any.
Two years ago the couple’s lives were turned upside down when their daughter Pattie was the victim of a hit-and-run accident. Since that time she has been bedridden, flailing her arms about and uttering nonsensical babble.
The dour, bullying, Tom struggles with what she’s become, not comfortable looking at her or caring for her. He escapes to work every day and, when he returns, expects his wife to provide the normalities of life, a home-cooked dinner, a clean shirt for the morning and a glass of scotch.
It soon becomes clear that Tom desperately wants the clock turned back. To before Pattie’s accident. To a more innocent time. He’s even joined the National Front, hoping that their extremist views on immigration will return England to his kind of English.
“All I want is the England I used to know,” he says. “When you knew where you were and all the houses had gardens and old ladies could feel safe in the street at night.”
But it’s Amy’s life that has changed irreparably. She hasn’t left her daughter’s side since the accident and, together with Tom’s withering remarks, she has been robbed of all confidence and self esteem.
Help comes from a charming, terribly polite, stranger who calls. He’d bumped into Tom in the street and was returning the wallet that the older man had dropped.
It turns out that the affable, ingratiating, Martin Taylor is a former friend of Pattie’s, that he’d once asked her to marry him, and, distraught at seeing the state both the young girl and the parents were in, Martin offers his help.
Dennis Potter was deliberately ambiguous about Martin. Was he a Good Samaritan, a conman, or something far worse? Was he evil incarnate, the Devil himself?
Director Parker leaves us in no doubt about his thoughts on the visitor. Fergus Leathem is splendid as the malevolent Martin, playing on Amy’s fear and insecurities, telling them both what they want to hear, persuading Tom that he shares similar beliefs.
But, once left alone with the helpless girl, Martin’s lust is overwhelming. Most controversially his actions prove a catalyst that is more devastating than his abominable behaviour.
The cast are magnificent in their own ways. Olivia Beardsley entirely convinces as the disabled Pattie who probably understands more than her wrecked body allows her to reveal. It’s a moving performance that is difficult to ignore.
Leathem is wickedly awful with his naughty asides to the audience and his thoroughly evil manipulation of the desperate family, particularly the emotionally vulnerable Amy.
His attempts to pray with her are deliciously comical as the demonic interloper feels retribution from his heavenly nemesis.
Paul Clayton’s outwardly unemotional Tom is bigoted, abusive and insensitive, trampling over his wife’s feelings and ignoring her obvious distress. But then, of course, he has a secret….
Returning to The Hope Theatre after Steel Magnolias is Stephanie Beattie and you can’t help but sympathise with her downtrodden housewife.
Beattie milks the woman’s timorousness and self-doubt for all it’s worth in a performance that is both funny and deeply tragic.
The production is so smoking hot that you can almost smell the sulphur but it does throw in a little too many stage effects and the fiendish Martin’s numerous knowing looks and glib one-liners end up more humorous than sinister.
Overall, this is an invigorating romp that reveals how little Potter’s contentious play has dated.
Brimstone and Treacle runs at The Hope Theatre until May 20.
Brimstone and Treacle
The Hope Theatre’s production of Dennis Potter’s controversial play, Brimstone and Treacle, is so smoking hot that you can almost smell the sulphur.