Review: Brimstone and Treacle, Arcola Theatre ****

First commissioned by the BBC in 1976, but then banned because the content was deemed too shocking, this is the first major revival of Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle. Set in the heart of middle-England in an apparently well off household, Potter’s play focuses on  middle-aged couple Tom and Amy Bates, whose previously peaceful life has been devastated by a mysterious hit-and-run accident which has left their only daughter, Pattie, drastically brain-damaged.

Amy is housebound, trapped in her role as full-time carer and housewife, while Tom fulfils the traditionally male role of solo breadwinner. The two are isolated from each other and the lives they once knew. Tessa Peake-Jones portrays Amy as just as much a victim of the accident as Pattie; her life outside of the house, her independence and her happiness have vanished. Her performance is incredibly touching, and contrasts well with the stoic Tom. Ian Redford’s Tom is perpetually stuck within his own desperation, unable to be free of wishing things were different – wishing he could go back in time. While harbouring mildly racist feelings, Redford creates a character that is gritty, real and stirring.

Dennis Potters play at times is absolutely shocking, and certainly doesn’t fail to revolt.

At the flick of a switch this less than idyllic but nonetheless stable existence is turned on its head by the arrival of Martin Taylor, portrayed by the striking Rupert Friend. Seemingly hell-bent on worming his way into the lives of the Bates family, he tells them he was once Pattie’s fiancé and that he is determined to stick by her – for an unspecified amount of time. Friend has the swagger and self-assurance that are absolute essential for this role and, with a wink and a nudge, for almost the duration of the play he seems to get his own way.

This is not, however, a play for the faint of heart. Martin is not all that he seems. Friend seems to take the task of portraying the epitome of unimaginable evil happily in his stride. The shrewd use of music and dissonant sound effects, designed by Elena Pena, creates unsettling echoes of religious ceremony at several crucial moments. Matti Houghton works incredibly hard in her role as Patti, the principal victim of Taylor’s evil. Though not being able to vocalise her struggle, her eyes speak volumes.

Dennis Potters play at times is absolutely shocking, and certainly doesn’t fail to revolt. However these graphic moments of sexual violence, hatred and other manifestations of Taylor’s evil are some of the most gripping. Although some areas of the production were a little heavy handed, director Amelia Sears does a commendable job and the play’s final climax is absolutely shattering. This is a troubling and poignant play that will haunt you long after you leave the theatre.

Runs until 2nd June 2012
**** (4 Stars)
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