During his lifetime, dramatist Denns Potter made an indelible impact on television between the 1960s-80s. Like many writers who have had long careers, he enjoyed intial success and popularity before the backlash in later years. However, even during his most prolific period he courted controversy with his candid views – remmants of his previous career as a journalist – and none more so than his 1976 teleplay Brimstone and Treacle. Originally not broadcast by the BBC because its subject matter, it resurfaced 10 years later on television and as a movie. The stage adapation though is a worthy narrative in its own right and packs quite a punch, precisely because it takes place in such close quarters.
The play begins in the suburban home of Tom and Amy Bates (Paul Clayton, Stephanie Beattie). Tom’s annoyed that his wife has only provided sandwiches for his tea. Her excuse – their daughter Patricia (Oliva Beardsley) who sustained mental and physical injuries after an accident two years ago has been particulatly ‘difficult’ throughout the day, leaving Amy little time to prepare any food. However, there is another reason that Tom’s perturbed – a young man by the name of Martin Taylor (Fergus Leatham) knows all about him, but the same can’t be said about Tom’s knowledge of Martin. The saying goes ‘Speak of the devil and he shall appear’. And so it is that after their discussion, Martin appears on their doorstep, trying to convince Mr and Mrs Bates he knew Patricia years ago, before her ‘change of circumstance’.
Clayton makes a deep impression as the irascible Tom – quick with dry, sardonic quips, whose disastifaction with the modern world and the multicultural nature of Britain leads him to support the National Front: “All I want is the England I used to know. The England I remember. I simply want the world to stop just where it is – and go back a bit.” Tom’s wish to turn back the clocks has a deeper, psychological basis and he shows an ambivalent attitude towards the act of prayer (not too disimilar to Potter’s, who in life had trouble reconciling the idea of a benevolent God with the randomness of human suffering, including his own lifelong psoriasis). Potter’s own complex opinions about ‘goodness’ will be talked about later.
As Amy – dutiful carer and mother of Patricia and Tom’s long-suffering wife – Beattie conveys her mental and physical weariness, caught between the perennial nursing required for her daughter and her husband’s bullish attitude. She finds a modicum of comfort in her religious faith, but it is only when Martin shows an interest in her as a person in her own right that she starts to see herself as more than a mother, carer or wife. Small wonder she is taken in by his words and offers of cooking and housework.
Playing a character who is essentially brain-damged is no easy task. One runs the risk of playing a parody, being offensive or not being ‘realistic’. Beardsley sidesteps all of these potential pitfalls and manages to convey the character’s recognition of what’s going on with her eyes – in certain scenes welling up with tears as she knows her damaged body won’t let her speak.
So how does one play a character that is essentially the devil incarnate? Throughout his career Potter was not an adovocate of naturalism, or at least not of its exclusive use. On several occasions Leatham breaks the fourth wall, talking directly to individual members of the audience andreminding them that his ‘altruism’ is a ruse. He is also at times obsequious, saying anything and everything to get a toehold to stay. However, for the most part Martin is a mirror to Tom and Amy, reflecting back their fears and their true selves. If the notion of a diabolical visitor is hard to take seriously, a mere fable, the words of Martin in the latter half of the play are disquieting in the extreme as they evoke allusions to Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and fit seemlessly with Brexit Britain…
Lest I forget, I must at this juncture mention Rachael Ryan and Phil Matejtschuk who are the respective set- and sound designers. I don’t always mention this aspect of productions in reviews, but in this case their contributions to Brimstone and Treacle were keenly felt and the show would have been very different without their contributions.
So what is Brimstone and Treacle really about? In many ways it is an inversion of JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. Instead of a play about an authority figure exposing the hypocrisy of the affluent – highlighting how their actions affect all stratas of society, we have a play about an uninvited visitor who elicts the Bates’ secrets to endgender further unhappiness between themselves and the world at large. The fact that Martin on the surface is a ‘good’ person is Potter’s warning about any person or institution that gives lips service to people’s wants, but ultimately has its own agenda, bringing disharmony to all. Now that doesn’t sound like a play written 40 years ago, does it?
Matthew Parker during his tenure as Artistic Director at Hope Theatre has shown a flair for plays that adopt idiosyncrasies and elements of non-naturalism, much like Potter himself. By directing and presenting this timely production of Brimstone and Treacle at this juncture, he shows an astute eye for classic texts that have a contemporary resonance. In many ways Brimstone and Treacle is a watershed play for the Hope Theatre, an intimate tale that says so much about the crossroads that the UK (and indeed the world) finds itself at.
© Michael Davis 2017
Brimstone and Treacle runs at the Hope Theatre, London until 20th May 2017.