Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The Devil's in the details... Brimstone and Treacle, Hope Theatre

This is a difficult, challenging play even forty years after it was first produced; it makes you uncomfortable from the get-go and yet before long you laugh, the whole audience laughs. Is there any such thing as pure evil and is there really any purely "good”? After years of debilitating psoriatic arthropathy, Dennis Potter had more than just a few questions for the deity under whose watch he had suffered… physically and mentally he was laid low. Brimstone and Treacle was his way of examining the rhyme and the reason: and in the endless alternations between the good and the bad, can pure wrong make a right.

This play has been a real passion project for director Matthew Parker who conveys the full power of Potter’s angry vision: there are no compromises and he has helped summon four extraordinary performances from his high-powered cast. You can fully understand why the BBC didn’t feel able to screen the Play for Today in 1976 – it took them ten years – which is why the performance at the Sheffield Crucible in 1977 was its debut.

Olivia Beardsley & Stephanie Beattie - Brimstone and Treacle (All photos lhphotoshots1)
Has Britain changed over forty years after the National Front were nearly as popular as UKIP? The play is unflinching in revealing the unresolvable desire to take our country back against a background of terrorism and widespread immigration. And, whilst this casual darkness lies at the heart of one character there are other black deeds at issue; action not words that require no Devil, simply people.

The play opens in truly shocking style; we enter the performance space to find a young woman sleeping peacefully in her bed but once the play begins we can see that she is severely disabled and in a near vegetative state. This is the suburban home of the Bates family and here lies the living remains of their daughter Pattie (Olivia Beardsley who gives a quite astonishing performance) who was very badly injured in a hit and run accident over two years ago.

Paul Clayton
Her mother Amy (Stephanie Beattie) looks after her almost day and night, feeding, cleaning and praying that she can still comprehend even though she can’t express. It’s heart-rending and it’s alarming to see a human figure so distressed: Pattie vocalises incoherently, she writhes with discomforting, dyspraxic, angularity, almost as if she’s being restrained but hasn’t the strength to respond.

Father Tom (Paul Clayton) is convinced she cannot understand anything happening around her and that he lost his daughter for good when the accident occurred. He can see no hope and tortures his wife with his fatalism. The two are broken down, as locked in their own physical and mental space as their daughter; a lifetime of curtailed, stifling routine.

Amy wonders, almost prays, that someone or something will come into their lives to save them, if only for a while. Shortly afterwards Tom has a bizarre encounter with a young man who claims to know him and to have been close to Pattie. Then, there’s a knock at the door and the man, the innocuously-named Martin Taylor (Fergus Leathem), arrives claiming to have found Tom’s missing wallet.

Fergus Leathem
Now the strangeness begins as the excruciatingly-polite, quicksilvered young man talks his way into the Bates’ house and lives. He says he wants to help, claims that he once proposed to Pattie – who declined but said she would consider – and, in spite of Tom’s hard-wired cynicism, impresses Amy by echoing her fluttering Christian hopes.

Yet Martin continually turns to the audience and the lights flicker with demonic force as he reveals either the hideous mind of a sociopath or a more purely evil persona: he’s conning the Bates and making us all complicit. The play is very funny and intentionally so; we laugh even knowing there’s evil at work, even confronted by a severely disabled character… that’s Potter’s challenge down the decades and it still works. Nobody is getting out of this unaffected, certainly not the audience as Martin’s viscous sexual assault on Pattie slaps us hard: and we found him funny?!

In the same way that Alfred Hitchcock brought out the voyeur in us all, Potter makes us complicit in Martin’s plans: we’re curious and he is a magnetic personality… how far will he - and we - go?

Fergus Leathem is outstanding, giving a high-energy performance that combines the unrelentingly unctuous with the irrepressibly malevolent in equal turns. His creepily-atonal version of You Are My Sunshine will be stuck on my head for weeks.

Before the night is out we will be taken to the dark heart of the Bates’ family, as Martin joyfully plays on Tom’s support for the National Front to extrapolate the most logical conclusions for the idea that outsiders should all be sent “home”… It is still very much a play for today. But there’s more… something else that happened before Allie’s accident and, can any good possibly come from Martin’s evil?

Some plays leave you smiling while others scratch your head... this one simply leaves you stunned, challenging us all to look not only at what we’ve just seen but what we’ve just felt. That is pure theatre and pure Potter!

The play runs until 20th May and deserves to be seen: there’s nothing bad about such great performances - Paul Clayton and Stephanie Beattie are both superbly heart-breaking - and in these febrile times, it’s better the Devil you know… isn't it?

Tickets are available with full details on the Hopewebsite. I'd be quick though, there'll be a lot fo full houses for this one.

Ithankyou rating: *****

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