You will rarely see as confronting a play as Brimstone and Treacle. The play centres on a young girl, disabled after a hit and run, and the stranger that comes into the life of her family two years after the accident. Is he a saviour or a sinner?
Originally written and recorded by the BBC, despite exceptional writing being acknowledged by the Director Of Television Programmes, it was banned because he found it nauseating. I can understand why. Dennis Potter’sevil versus evangelical text was re-written for the stage, and debuted at the Sheffield Crucible Theatre in 1997, opening in London in 1979 and even becoming a feature film (starring Sting) in 1982.
Pattie (Matti Houghton) cannot speak, walk, feed or clean herself. She is entirely dependent on her parents who have not had a break for the past two years. The grunting and sudden jolts in her body movements make it uncomfortable watching, precisely how it should be. Her father Mr Bates (the commanding Ian Redford) and mother Mrs Bates (the always wonderful Tessa Peake-Jones) have two different outlooks for the future of their daughter. One believes she will recover and the other thinks there is no hope.
Enter Martin Taylor (Rupert Friend) who appears to have all the answers – willing to help, seems to know Pattie, and will do anything to convince Mr and Mrs Bates that they can trust him … just so he can be left alone with Pattie for a short time. Friend is a talented actor and plays the creepiness of the role with extreme conviction, however the strange decision, directorial as opposed to in the script perhaps, to give a nod or wink to the audience detracts one from being totally immersed in the narrative.
The strong cast put on a brilliant performance in this awkward to watch scenario. You never know which way it’s going to turn next – much like a thriller, although you would never envisage the final twist. As Dennis Potter so aptly puts it, “The evil act can lead to good consequences; a good act can lead to evil consequences. This is often the case, and it is … incomprehensible”.
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By Kate Hudspeth @KateHudspeth
2nd May - 2nd June 2012
Arcola Theatre, London, E8.