Hope Theatre, London – until 20 May 2017
“There is no God. There are no miracles.”
Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle marks its 40th anniversary this year and so it’s as good a time as any to revive this dark drama that was so controversial on its release that the BBC banned it from its original Play For Today slot. It eventually played at Sheffield Crucible a year later and though it received a powerfully acted production (Tessa Peake-Jones, Rupert Friend) at the Arcola in 2012, Matthew Parker‘s revival for his Hope Theatre feels perfectly poised to capitalise on its relevance to our fractured society.
Though written and set in the late 70s, Potter’s depiction of far-right politics, racism and homophobia, religious intolerance feels horribly recognisable. The way in which one character rationalises his decision to join the National Front has chilling new currency in this post-Brexit world and the supercilious smile that another character occasionally bares to the audience reflects nothing so much as the arrogance of Nigel Farage. Potter’s dramatic form of evil is naturally much more timeless but you can’t help but draw the parallels here.
The evil that visits the North London suburban home of the Bates family comes in the form of Fergus Leathem’s Martin but in Parker’s production, there’s no questioning from whence he came. The flashes of red hot light (Tom Kitney) and simmering sound (Phil Matejschuk) underscore his demonic presence in a household that has stultified due to a tragic accident which has rendered a young woman severely injured and permanently bed-ridden (a superb Olivia Beardsley). And as he insinuates his way into their lives, true horror begins to unfold.
Parker wisely keeps the play’s violence ugly and abrasive, a shocking and disturbing act that rightly shocks and disturbs, but his real skill is in showing us just how human the Bates’ are. In Rachael Ryan’s pitch-perfect 70s set (the brown glass! the coffee service! that lamp!), you see how Paul Clayton’s patriarch has been crushed by what has happened to his family and how that can drive a man to find succour in reactionary political views. And Stephanie Beattie’s mother is deeply moving in her determination to cling to the positive, even whilst the dream of a happy ending leads to catastrophe.