Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle is a shocking, visceral problem play that stares deep into the shadows and squalor of life to explore dark themes of good and evil.
Originally a TV play it was filmed in 1976 but shelved for 11 years because of its controversial violence and seemingly anti-religious messages. The stage adaptation is Potter’s own from 1977 which is when the production is set. Rachel Ryan’s stage furnishings revel in the tacky browns and yellows of the period with a dismal sense of proto-Brexit Britishness. Director Matthew Parker has a penchant for the dark comedy of the horrific, and his production of this challenging piece doesn’t flinch from Potter’s vision of life as metaphysical pain and horror.
Mr and Mrs Bates (Paul Clayton and Stephanie Beattie), are the archetypal 1970s couple, he a pedantic autocrat and she a doormat. Into their drab home comes Martin Taylor (Fergus Leatham), a charming but unsettling young man who claims to have known Mr Bates, but clearly hasn’t. He also claims to have loved the Bates’s daughter Patty (Olivia Beardsley), who, following a hit-and-run incident, is essentially locked in, incapable of coherent speech, writhing around on the bed being fed mashed banana with a short spoon. Martin goes all out to ingratiate himself into the family life. We soon learn why. Mr Bates says early on “We don’t know anything about you; you could be the devil himself,” and Martin’s demonic nature leads the play into some truly dark, shocking places.
The play is ambiguous about whether he is the devil or just thinks he is. His stage-villain asides to the audience, the leering and “Oh, crikey!” accompanied by flickering lights and a rumble of noise, suggest that he is, in stage terms at least, but the character and Fergus Leatham’s nuanced performance are ambiguous. Martin is a consummate emotional manipulator, particularly to the deperate Mrs Bates, whom he calls ‘Mumsie’ with oily glee, but he also seems desperate, like he can’t help but do bad things and sort of knows it, that maybe he even needs to be loved. He seems genuinely scared of God. This is no ordinary stage devil. In fact, he spends most of the play acting like an angel. Acting, but so what if good things come out of it?
In such a brutal play, the performances are achingly tender. The physicality of Olivia Beardsley’s Patty, performed with barely anything resembling a conventional theatrical gesture, never gives away whether she does or doesn’t know what’s going on around her, but makes palpable a sense of pain. Stephanie Beattie’s Mrs Bates, the exhausted housebound wife and carer, seems constantly on the verge of emotional collapse, but performed with just enough inner toughness to convince us she has always lived this life and might always. Paul Clayton’s reading of her boorish husband Mr Bates pricks the man’s vanity and pompousness, but also bears out his points of insight – he’s never quite convinced Martin’s back story, and he makes a speech that is uncomfortable because of its backward looking Little Englander sentiment but also because of its powerful poetry of grief and loss. Clayton’s performance is alive to both the unpalatability and the poetry: “All I want is the England I used to know. The England I remember. I simply want the world to stop just where it is – and go back a bit.”
Brimstone and Treacle is unpleasant but unforgettable. The production doesn’t shy away from the tender horror of Potter’s vision, hard as it is to stomach, especially at such close quarters upstairs at the Hope Theatre. It’s brutal and in-your-face, doesn’t stint on the physical and emotional violence, and doesn’t give us any easy answers. Potter’s bleak worldview has scope for redemption – Mr Bates is shocked by Martin’s talk of concentration camps and decides to leave the National Front, for example – but we left the Hope Theatre with our hope in tatters, feeling stunned and desolate. Then we talked animatedly about the nature of evil and whether good can come of evil, and we realised sometimes it can.
Reviewed by AJ Dehany
Brimstone and Treacle plays at the Hope Theatre until 20 May 2017