Pros: A claustrophobic, atmospheric set adds to the tension of a disturbing piece.
Cons: Overtly racist dialogue might be offensive to some.
Anyone old enough to remember Play for Today, the BBC’s series of television plays, will be familiar with Dennis Potter. His penchant for disturbing storylines and dysfunctional characters garnered wide acclaim, particularly for Pennies from Heaven and the Singing Detective. However, Brimstone and Treacle was canned by the BBC as too shocking for broadcast. It was eventually aired in 1987 which followed a big screen version co-starring Sting featuring his first solo hit Spread a Little Happiness. Now, the Hope Theatre in Islington is staging a 40th anniversary revival of the play that ruffled so many feathers in 1976.
It tells of Tom and Amy Bates, a middle aged couple living in a London suburb, whose lives have been wrecked by a hit and run accident which has left their daughter Pattie totally dependent upon them. Tom and Amy have a joyless existence caring for their daughter, who is bedridden and unable to communicate clearly. Tom is consumed by depression and the belief that Pattie will never recover, while Amy is convinced Pattie is improving and thinks she may talk again. Presently, a mysterious young man called Martin Taylor enters their lives. After a chance meeting, Martin manipulates his way into the Bates’ home claiming to have once been Pattie’s fiancé. The Bateses wonder why Pattie has never mentioned him, but nevertheless accept his offer of respite care for Pattie. It becomes apparent that Martin has his own agenda; he frequently addresses the audience with a knowing wink or smile. So begins a dark study of broken lives, prejudice and frustration.
Whilst the story sits firmly in the 1970s, it clearly draws parallels with the post-Brexit era and xenophobia exposed by last year’s referendum. Tom wears racist credentials on his sleeve and happily declares support for the National Front. Martin enthusiastically concurs as his feet creep further the table. It is, however, sad to note that a drama written in 1976 can still be contemporary, with a casual approach to racism and deep rooted prejudice that still hits a chord today. Having said that, the play is held together by an excellent cast: Paul Clayton (of Peep Show fame) turns in a chillingly good performance as Tom; Stephanie Beattie is thoroughly convincing as Amy; and Fergus Leathem was in fine form as the sinister Martin. Olivia Beardsley deserves a special mention as Pattie: while she has little in the way of spoken dialogue her reactions to characters around her are spot on, which is no easy task for an actor when confined to a bed throughout.
The tight confines of the Hope Theatre is the ideal setting for the play, benefiting from the close, almost suffocating atmosphere of a small venue. However, even with a fine cast at its disposal, it falls short. Dennis Potter is in many respects over-rated, relying on his ability to shock in place of genuine creativity. His works are very much a child of their era, and seem heavy footed in the 21st century. But there is no disputing the power of a live, well executed performance.
Author: Dennis Potter
Director: Matthew Parker
Producer: Cassie Hodges & David Ralf for the Hope Theatre
Box Office: 0333 666 3366
Booking Link: https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/event/173806
Booking Until: 20 May 2017