It’s not hard to understand why Brimstone and Treacle was banned in 1976. Written by Dennis Potter as a television play for BBC’s Play for Today the work explores the darkest edges of humanity, with a touch of black humour for good measure.
The action begins as a glimpse behind the suburban curtains of Mr and Mrs Bates, the reclusive middle-aged couple who care for their daughter Pattie left disabled from a car crash two years previously. However, the arrival of manipulative Martin, claiming to be Pattie’s almost former fiancé, cuts deeper into the truth of their seemingly stale lives, with macabre and abusive consequences.
Set in a typical 70s living room, dominated by muddy brown florals covering the walls to the velvet chairs, director Matthew Parker’s revival of Brimstone and Treacle is seen through a teak lens of the past. Yet by remaining loyal to the original setting Mr Bates’s anti-immigration stance and membership of the National Front become all more pertinent for an audience living in today’s fractured Brexit Britain.
The focus of the scene is the disabled Pattie, played by Olivia Beardsley, who lies in the centre of the room. A Cassandra figure who is ignored by her father, and misunderstood by her mother and Martin, her timely shouts act as an unintelligible soundtrack to those around her. Beardsley puts in a committed and believable performance, providing some of the lightest and darkest moments. As odd words seep into her cries, her ‘No!’ to Martin’s ‘Yes!’ is darkly comic as it pre-empts the brutal non-consensual scenes to follow.
Fergus Leatham is enthusiastic in his role as the sycophantic house guest Martin, who preys on the self-conscious anxiety of this suburban couple. Yet, his evil asides to the audience feel a little rushed, and at points his performance verges on the melodramatic, sadly undermining the build-up to the realisation of his character’s sinister plans.
Leatham seems most comfortable in the moments of humour, such as his monotone rendition of ‘You are my sunshine’ to an unreceptive Pattie, and later an energetic multi-accented evangelical prayer. It is when he is having fun that he shows the most potential.
The stand out performances come from Paul Clayton and Stephanie Beatties as the strained, somewhat loveless, Mr and Mrs Bates. Beatties perfectly captures the frazzled innocence of a mother trapped in the thankless existence of carer, while Clayton gives a wonderful performance as both a twitchy, concerned father and dismissive, cold husband. Both actors expertly navigate the comedic and the more serious moments, demonstrating that nothing beats experience when it comes to small venues.
Brimstone and Treacle is a tough play for actor and audience alike. In Parker’s version, the set is beautifully executed, but the imbalance in performances and tendency for the actors to err on the side of humour mean that the play, while shocking, lacks real poignancy in its punch.
Brimstone and Treacle is playing The Hope Theatre until May 20.