Review: The House of Yes at The Hope Theatre

Bringing to a close Matthew Parker’s critically acclaimed tenure at The Hope, The House of Yes is a jet-black comedy drama that very much sees the theatre’s outgoing artistic director leave with a bang. Deeply twisted in a variety of ways, Wendy MacLeod’s story of the dysfunctional Pascal family is both horrifying and hilarious, and in this production it’s performed exquisitely by the cast of five.

It’s Thanksgiving, and Marty (Fergus Leathem) is bringing his fiancée Lesly (Kaya Bucholc) home to meet the family. The problem? His family… By their own admission, the Pascals have never had a guest before, and it’s unlikely they’ll ever have one again once the dust settles on this particularly eventful 24 hours. Marty’s twin sister Jackie-O (Colette Eaton) has two obsessions: her namesake, the former First Lady; and – unfortunately for him – Marty. Younger brother Anthony (Bart Lambert) is a college dropout whose eye falls rather too enthusiastically on his brother’s future wife. And through it all, their mother (Gill King), a self-professed “free spirit”, wafts around the house, seemingly taking little interest in her children’s lives… but in reality paying just a bit too much attention to what they’re getting up to.

What’s particularly enjoyable about this production is the care each actor puts into their performance. It’s impossible to choose a standout performance when each of them is so captivating. Every detail – the way a line is delivered, the movements and gestures, the facial expressions and eye rolls – feels perfectly timed and judged. The characters are, to put it kindly, not normal people – and yet somehow they come across as three-dimensional and 100% believable, particularly in the setting of their gloomy, claustrophobic house, with the power out and a hurricane raging outside. Rachael Ryan’s set design perfectly captures the essence of a home whose former splendour has now well and truly faded, even if that message hasn’t quite reached the Pascals themselves. It’s all a bit Addams Family meets Hotel California; both house and residents seem to have a way of ensnaring those who step inside, and the thought of anyone ever leaving becomes increasingly remote as the evening goes on.

Photo credit: lhphotoshots

As hard as it may be to believe, this dark and twisted tale is also very funny, despite that constant creeping sense that all will not end well. Much of our laughter is the result of surprise; these are characters who just say whatever’s on their mind, whether or not it’s considered appropriate – and as dysfunctional as they undeniably all are, there’s something quite refreshing and enjoyable about that openness.

The House of Yes may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who are willing to let themselves be drawn into the Pascals’ crazy little world, there’s so much to enjoy about this expertly put together production. It’s a fitting and suitably offbeat farewell from Matthew Parker, a play that will make you laugh, recoil, and possibly have a nightmare or two. But don’t panic – they do let you out at the end. Honest.

The House of Yes is at The Hope Theatre until 26th October.

Review: Brimstone and Treacle at The Hope Theatre

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.

Photo credit: lhphotoshots

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.

Photo credit: lhphotoshots

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.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Matthew Parker, Brimstone and Treacle

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.”

Catch Brimstone and Treacle at The Hope Theatre from 2nd-20th May – and why not check the theatre’s website to see what else is coming up?