views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Brimstone and Treacle
The Hope Theatre
6th May 2017

★★★★☆

Fergus Leathem as Martin

Photography provided by the Hope Theatre

It's increasingly difficult to remember when the watershed is supposed to start, because what passes for appropriate for all ages seems to be a lot more hardcore these days. We've become a nation that's almost impossible to shock or offend. Originally written in the 1970s as a radio play, Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle got shelved for a decade due to its controversial content and although it is no longer contemporaneous, it remains challenging to stomach even for a present day audience. Now, that's really saying something given the kind of gore and filth we watch these days without so much as blinking. Brimstone and Treacle is certainly not a feel good play, but it's a very commendable production with some beautifully nuanced characterisation.

Once a vibrant young woman with an active social life, a hit-and-run accident has left Pattie (Olivia Beardsley) confined to a bed in her parents' living room, convulsing, screaming and unable to communicate. Her mother, Amy (Stephanie Beattie) cares for her day in, day out, never leaving her side, whilst her father, Tom (Paul Clayton) goes out to work. One day Tom literally runs into a young man called Martin (Fergus Leathem) who insists he knows the family from the happier days before Pattie's accident. If you thought things couldn't get much worse for the Bates, you would be wrong...

Whether Martin is "merely" a con artist or the devil incarnate, it's horrifyingly easy to see how he inserts himself into the Bates' family life so insidiously. He preys on Amy's desperation and exhaustion and flatters Tom's ideologies, mentally filing away details to be trotted out later, mirroring the couple's words and deliberately creating discord to distract from his own agenda. Without giving too much away, this is a play that takes us to some dark places, but what is most shocking is witnessing someone fail a loved one. You immediately empathise with how it would feel to realise you had let someone down so badly yourself and this notion lingers unsettlingly long after leaving the theatre. Take a friend, you may well need a hug afterwards.

Leathem's performance is so spine-chillingly creepy that I fear he is destined for an immediate future of discerning theatregoers remembering his face and crossing the road to avoid him. It's hard to watch his character's brazen contempt and duplicity, especially when he catches our eyes and throws an unwanted, conspiratorial aside our way. Not only do we sit through what he does, unable to intervene, but Martin's occasional and unexpected interactions seem to imply we condone it. His monotonous serenade makes us laugh blackly yet when we later hear it again thanks to Phil Matejtschuk's unnerving sound design, we feel uncomfortable and wonder if being entertained the first time round was the appropriate response. Leathem's superb portrayal makes us doubt ourselves on a very personal level.

The company of Brimstone and Treacle

Photography provided by the Hope Theatre

As for Mr and Mrs Bates, whilst they both initially seem like very straightforward protagonists, the little details that are teased out by director Matthew Parker make them so much more interesting. They both have their own conflicts and are imperfect creatures in different ways. We can read Beattie's character very easily; Amy is incapable of hiding her thought process as she's so inherently naive. Although Tom is more closed, this is what makes his development so fascinating, particularly when forced to challenge his way of thinking. Parker defuses Tom's racism by emphasising his unspoken moment of clarity. It's always problematic staging something from more than a few decades back, however this is dealt with very neatly.

The only (minor) criticism of the the production can be dealt with by rushing to the theatre and picking your seat wisely. Some of the early scenes are blocked in such a way that certain seats don't allow for a clear sightline and that's the point in the narrative when you really do want to see as well as hear how the characters are interacting with each other. In the very beginning, you're frantically trying to figure out each protagonist's motivations and not having all tools at your disposal detracts slightly from that experience.

Rachael Ryan's set and costume design are a tribute to the dull, depressing palette of the 1970s, blending beige, brown, magnolia and mustard into a suburban nightmare. There's a hint of colour on Pattie's bedspread, which draws the eye to the crocheted blanket in the middle of the room. As Beardsley's character twitches uncontrollable and her fingers catch awkwardly on the holes in the design, that little splash of colour too becomes as depressing as the rest of the room. It's clear there is no joy to be had anywhere in the Bates' household - and even the newspaper clutched by Tom has a headline proclaiming despair on page one, implying the outside world is not much happier.

It's tempting to avoid plays which are all about doom, gloom and misery. However, Brimstone and Treacle does remind you of your own humanity and that's no bad thing. Admittedly downright harrowing, but another damn fine in-house production from The Hope and highly recommended.

Brimstone and Treacle opened on 2nd May and runs until 20th May 2017 at the Hope Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)



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