The Hope Theatre in Islington has been quietly building a reputation for excellence over the last couple of years, collecting rave reviews and countless award nominations, including one for Fringe Theatre of the Year at The Stage Awards. Much of this success must be attributed to the theatre’s artistic director Matthew Parker, who came on board in late 2014 and was recently named Best Artistic Director at the Off West End Awards.
Next month The Hope kicks off its 2017 in-house season with a 40th anniversary revival of Dennis Potter’s controversial Brimstone and Treacle, directed by Matthew and starring Olivia Beardsley, Stephanie Beattie, Fergus Leathem and Paul Clayton. Originally written as a BBC Play for Today in 1976, it was banned for its disturbing content, and wasn’t performed until the following year at the Sheffield Crucible. A film version starring Sting followed in 1982, but it wasn’t until 1987 that the BBC finally allowed the play to be transmitted.
“Brimstone and Treacle is about a young man who thinks he’s the devil, and visits a middle class, middle aged couple who are caring for their vulnerable daughter,” explains Matthew, who admits he’s been longing to tackle this particular play for years. “It’s darkly funny, frightening and shocking, a controversial masterpiece about good and evil, identity, religion and what it means to be British. Who wouldn’t want to tackle a one act play that explores all of those monumental themes? Plus, and crucially for me and the Hope, it is a gender balanced cast – two women and two men – with roles for two actors over 50.”
40 years after it was written, Potter’s play remains just as relevant in 2017 – though that’s hardly something to celebrate. “It’s about racism, the horror that lies behind the twitching floral curtains of middle England homes,” says Matthew. “It attacks what it means to be British and the lengths people will go to inside their own heads to ‘reclaim their country’. Coming off the back of 2016’s Brexit vote it really couldn’t be more timely if it tried! It’s the 40th anniversary this year and I am always fascinated to look at these 20th century classics with a 21st century audience and ask ourselves, ‘What has changed?’ It’s scary to see just how little matters have actually changed in terms of attitudes to race, gender and religious tolerance.”
The play contains scenes that were deemed too offensive to be shown in the 1970s, but does it still have the same shock value today? Matthew believes it does: “In a word, yes. It contains scenes of sexual violence against someone in a vulnerable position and it really doesn’t shy away from showing evil, both in a physical and mental way. It’s very important to me that our production is not exploitative with the scenes of sexual violence. But nor should it be sugar-coated. We are dealing with pure evil here. The darkness of humanity. The piece examines the nature of good and evil, and asks whether miracles can occur from an act of evil – from the visitation of the devil rather than an angel.
“And it is funny – and the fact that it is funny as well as violent is shocking in itself. Even at our first read through some of the team were laughing away whilst some others were staring at them in horror, thinking ‘how can you be laughing at that?’ As a director, work that creates different reactions within audiences has always attracted me.”
Matthew’s delighted with his cast for the show. “Well, they’re bloody brilliant. Stephanie Beattie was in my production of Steel Magnolias last year and blew everyone away with her astonishingly heartbreaking performance as M’Lynn. Joining her as her on stage hubby is Paul Clayton, an actor with an amazing career spanning TV (Peep Show, Him and Her, Coronation Street) and theatre including RSC, Chichester, Royal Exchange, West End. They are joined by two graduates of Drama Studio London: Fergus Leathem, who last year appeared in Game of Thrones, and Olivia Beardsley joins us less than a year from graduating and I’m super-excited to get to work with her at this early stage of her career. She’s definitely one to watch!”
As disturbing as the play undoubtedly is, there is some good news. “I’d like our audiences to take away the comfort that good will always triumph over evil,” says Matthew. “And knowing that The Hope takes risks with its programming, and that you can see theatre here that is bold, theatrical and stunningly performed.”
So what makes The Hope different from other fringe theatres? “Little room – BIG ideas. Small space – HUGE ambition. Minimal money – MASSIVE passion,” summarises Matthew. “And every piece is theatrical. It’s not kitchen sink dramas. It’s not really naturalism. Everything has a little sprinkle of magical theatricality.”
Not surprisingly, when it comes to choosing which productions go into a season at The Hope, Matthew and his team operate a careful, thorough selection process: “I have a brilliant team of people who read all the plays that get submitted. If they like them then I read them, then I meet with the company and chat though the unique way in which we collaborate with people at The Hope. Not everyone is the right ‘fit’ and I won’t just take anyone or any show.
“It’s super important to me that everything that takes place in that lovely little space is brilliant. I take risks but I take them on people who enter into the collaboration with honesty, and with joy and passion. It really is fantastic to see that this approach has paid off with a Stage Award nomination as Fringe Theatre of the Year and my recent success at the Off West End Awards as Best Artistic Director 2016.”