BWW Review: BRIMSTONE AND TREACLE, The Hope Theatre
Dennis Potter's 1976 work finds new life under direction by Matthew Parker. Written as a television play but never broadcast due to its disturbing plot, it was finally produced at the Sheffield Crucible in 1977. Now, 40 years later, its revival is just as unsettling and relevant.
The arrival of Martin (Fergus Leathem) disrupts the Bates's (Stephanie Beattie and Paul Clayton) lives. After being left with an injured and totally dependent child because of a hit-and-run accident two years prior, their existence revolves around taking care of Pattie (Olivia Beardsley) behind closed doors. The young man claims he was a close friend of their daughter's, but he's not exactly who he says he is.
The play is peppered with dark humour and grotesque leitmotifs. Parker doesn't shy away from pointing out the sheer evil, from the appalling original racist lining to explicit sexual abuse. It's strikingly juxtaposed with the characters' sarcasm and funny one-liners.
Fergus Leathem is diabolically and disturbingly comical, alternating Martin's devilish identity with his pretence of joviality and kindness; his monotone singing, whether in person or through resounding speakers, is the stuff of nightmares. Leathem's gentle features become an asset for the con artist, whose actions are horrifying and blood-chilling.
His strong performance comes to a climax when Mrs Bates asks Martin, who could be the devil himself, to pray for Pattie. His macabre humour and timing are impeccable, and his continuous nods to the audience make us creepily complicit. It is through this unwanted connection that Martin - and therefore evil - wins for a while.
Paul Clayton and Stephanie Beattie are precise and vividly British as the shattered couple. "There is no God, there are no miracles," muses Clayton, but still he talks to his beloved child when his wife is not around, albeit reprimanding and denigrating her for doing the same. His patriarchal stance resonates with misogyny, racism and xenophobia, finally bursting forth in a climatic tirade.
It's at that point that Martin makes him realise the gravity of his opinions. He intensifies and blows Mr Bates's irrationality out of proportion, calling upon mass murder and genocide, thriving on hate and provoking shame, in another riveting moment from Leathem.
As his wife, Beattie's is comparatively upbeat and sanguine. She is mistreated and belittled by her husband and guiltily jumps at the possibility of having a little time for herself after two long years of devotion to her daughter. Her exuberance and longing for something to change in her life is what eventually leads to disaster, and Beattie is touchingly compelling.
Rachael Ryan certainly knows the devil is in the detail. Her set is soundly Seventies: its brownish wallpaper, knitted blanket, and scattered knick-knacks convey the dusty claustrophobia of the Bates's home. Through the collaboration between Tom Kitney (lighting) and Phil Matejtschuk (sound), the production gains a spectacular wicked aura: thunderous sounds and flickering lights add dimension especially to Leathem's performance, highlighting all his sly angles.
In combining elements belonging on the spectrum of good and evil, right and wrong, displays of sexual and mental violence, while also retaining Potter's inimitable one-liners, Parker creates a singular and disquietingly funny piece of theatre.