Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle was originally written for the BBC, but banned from transmission for several years because of its controversial content. 40 years later, Matthew Parker’s revival proves the play has lost none of its power to shock and disturb. Trying to reconcile everything that goes on keeps making my head hurt – and not just because of Rachael Ryan’s spectacular 70s wallpaper (though that certainly doesn’t help the situation).
It all seems quite straightforward to begin with. Tom and Amy Bates are a middle-aged couple caring for their daughter Pattie after a hit and run two years ago left her brain damaged and helpless. Just as they’re reaching breaking point, a mysterious young man turns up on the doorstep claiming to know their daughter, and offering his help. Martin Taylor seems like the answer to their prayers, but despite Amy’s raptures, it’s clear from the start that he is not a good guy – an impression cemented when he commits an unspeakable act against the vulnerable Pattie while her mum’s out getting her hair done.
But then. Then it all gets very interesting (if headache-inducing) as events take an unexpected turn and suddenly we don’t know whose side we’re on any more. The lines between good and evil begin to blur, and the play evolves into a powerful and incredibly relevant debate on issues of immigration, national identity and what it really means to “take our country back” – before spiralling to a shocking but strangely satisfying conclusion.
Matthew Parker has assembled a small but perfectly formed cast, who handle the difficult material with sensitivity and skill. As the beaten down Amy, Stephanie Beattie’s weariness and desperation are palpable, and it’s easy to see why she so readily falls for Martin’s slick patter. Paul Clayton gives a nicely understated performance as her husband Tom, whose only way of dealing with his grief is being impatient with his wife and hankering for the way things used to be.
Olivia Beardsley has fewest lines but arguably the toughest role as Pattie; in a meticulously observed physical performance, she communicates everything she can’t say verbally through her eyes and movement. And at the centre of it all is Fergus Leathem, genuinely quite terrifying as the psychopathic Martin, with a fixed grin but empty eyes, and a discomfiting habit of turning mid-conversation to address his private thoughts to the audience. His emotionless (not to mention tuneless) rendition of You Are My Sunshine is the stuff of horror movies; I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to the song again without a small shudder of revulsion.
Potter’s play deals with difficult themes in a darkly humorous way, provoking nervous and slightly guilty laughter at unexpected moments. But at the same time, spooky sound and light effects from Philip Matejtschuk and Tom Kitney keep us on edge and remind us not to get too comfortable – we are, after all, in the presence of pure evil.
It’s safe to say Brimstone and Treacle may not be everyone’s cup of tea; it’s incredibly intense, really messes with your head and may be best avoided by the easily offended or those of a nervous disposition. But it’s also a gripping production, beautifully performed, and even four decades after the play was written, fascinatingly – and uncomfortably – relevant. Above all, it reminds us that while evil may be closer to home than we realise, good will always win in the end – though maybe not in quite the way we expect.
Brimstone and Treacle is at The Hope Theatre until 20th May.