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Brimstone and Treacle, Arcola Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Brimstone and Treacle, Arcola Theatre

Brimstone and Treacle, Arcola Theatre

The devil's in the detail, in a fine revival of Dennis Potter's controversial play

You are my sunshine: Rupert Friend and Matti Houghton in 'Brimstone and Treacle'All images: Judie Waldmann

Life was altogether richer when Dennis Potter was around to provoke us, to make us look queasily at the corrupt, hypocritical or despairing aspects of our lives, ever entertainingly, with a wink and a song. Whenever a Potter play or serial was to air on television, one knew there would be plenty to talk about.

The talking points of Brimstone and Treacle when it was made for the BBC in 1976 involved the devil, a rape, and the fact that we couldn’t actually watch the play – it having been banned by the Beeb’s director of television, who described it as “brilliantly written and made, but nauseating”. It would be 11 years before it was finally broadcast. In the meantime, Potter adapted it for the stage and it was performed in 1977, without too much ado, at the Sheffield Crucible; theatre demonstrated a stronger stomach.

This is not to say that Amelia Sears’ revival at the Arcola Theatre is a curio, a token review of a cause célèbre. If Potter was a provocateur that might be the case, but the writer was never merely looking to get a rise from audiences; he was fuelled by questions and compulsions, and it was the sincerity of his writing that made it so uncomfortable. Brimstone and Treacle is well worth revisiting; more than that, it feels surprisingly relevant.

Potter offers enough for us to imagine that the stranger may be the devil himself

The studio space has been turned into a drab Seventies living room with a framed “Bless this House” on the wall (which will prove ironic) and a hospital bed in the corner. Here we find Mr and Mrs Bates (Ian Redford, Tessa Peake-Jones), a middle-aged, utterly miserable couple, whose grown daughter Patti (Matti Houghton) has been left physically disabled and unable to communicate after a hit and run. Mrs B has become a full-time carer, clinging to the optimistic belief that her child will recover, while isolation and her husband’s blithe cruelty are grinding her down; he is a belt and braces bigot, and a whiner to boot. “There is no God, there are no miracles,” he moans, to which his devout and desperate wife can only counter, “We need something, or someone to save us.”  

happy familyEnter the silver-tongued Martin (Rupert Friend, pictured right with  the cast), claiming to be Patti’s former admirer newly returned from the States and determined to show the girl the same “love and devotion” he would if she were on her feet. The moment he sings "You Are My Sunshine" by Patti’s bedside ought to be the moment he is shown the door; but Mrs Bates is putty in his hands, and Martin worms his way into the home. By this time, he has already cast a chilling, conspiratorial glance to the audience.

Martin is obviously a chancer, up to no good; but could he be more than that? Potter offers enough for us to imagine that the stranger may be the devil himself; if not, then he certainly has demonic delusions. And this brings us to the play’s notoriety, which resides in a double affront to our sensibilities: when Martin rapes the disabled Patti, and when this assault leads to her recovery.

Potter’s proposition of good coming from an evil act will always be thought-provoking; when given such extreme expression, it’s also disturbing, and may be distasteful. Yet there are many such horrors in the world; having been abused himself, as a child, perhaps Potter simply didn't see a reason not to sink into this one. True to form, he spins his premise into an attack on religion. Martin’s malign interference is seen to have much greater effect than Mrs Bates’s real love and devotion and, in the production’s most flamboyant moment, Martin leads her in prayer, only to rile at God for permitting the family’s suffering. In his last interview before he died, Potter told Melvyn Bragg, “Well, I don't know. God's a rumour, if you like.” It is hardly surprising that he should tease us with the devil.

What is unexpected is the force of the other themes swirling around this grim scenario: concerning the plight of carers (an issue that has gained much more exposure since the Seventies), racial intolerance, the disintegration of a marriage and, another favourite of Potter’s, betrayal.

Houghton looked exhausted at the end, and well she might

The whole is coated in the sort of black comedy one associates with Pinter and Joe Orton and which, given the sensitive material, is fearlessly exploited by Sears and Friend. The actor’s knowing glances to the audience may wear thin, but he perfectly captures the cheesy charm that casts such an unfortunate spell over the eager Mrs Bates. “I like these happy little tasks, Mumsy,” he insists, as he presents himself as all-in-one domestic help, confidante and carer; later he will enter wearing an apron, feigning housework when his actual intention is to hide the diaper he removed before the rape.

The hardest tasks fall, arguably, to the actresses. Peake-Jones skilfully maintains her pitch at one notch below hysteria, as a woman so worn down by experience that her embrace of Martin – as her last hope – is touching, but almost imbecilic. As we enter the set, Houghton and Redford are already in character and in place, she on the bed where she will spend the next 90 minutes, in savage contortions, her groaning unintelligible yet a constant commentary on the others’ dialogue. When the light finally sparks into her eyes, one realises how dead they were beforehand, and marvel at the concentration that can achieve that. Houghton looked exhausted at the end, and well she might.

Brimstone and Treacle at the Arcola Theatre until 2 June

Watch the trailer for Brimstone and Treacle


Brimstone and Treacle is well worth revisiting; more than that, it feels surprisingly relevant


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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