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Brimstone and Treacle at the Hope Theatre

Published by: Carolin Kopplin on 7th May 2017 | View all blogs by Carolin Kopplin

Martin (Fergus Leathem) praying for Pattie (Olivia Beardsley)

All I want is the England I used to know. The England I remember.

Originally written as a BBC Play for Today in 1976, Brimstone and Treacle was initially banned due to its disturbing content. The play had its stage premiere at the Sheffield Crucible one year later. Matthew Parker, who just won an Offie Award as Best Artistic Director, now presents the 40th anniversary production of Dennis Potter's darkly comic and divisive play about prejudice and fear in English homes at the Hope Theatre.

1977. A suburb in North London. Mr Bates (Paul Clayton) complains about the bland sandwiches that his wife (Stephanie Bettie) serves him as his dinner after he has worked very hard all day. But Mrs Bates has a good excuse - she is the full-time carer of their disabled daughter Pattie (Olivia Beardsley) who suffered severe brain injuries in a traffic accident two years ago. Mr Bates sees in his daughter little more than a breathing cabbage but Mrs Bates remains hopeful that Pattie is still present somewhere deep inside her damaged brain. Mrs Bates is at the end of her tether as she hasn't been able to leave the house in two years. Mr Bates refuses to employ a carer because it is too expense, nor will he allow any visitors because Pattie is an embarrassment to him.

All of a sudden, Martin (Fergus Leathem) arrives on their doorstep, claiming that he loved Pattie and had proposed to her before she had her accident. When Martin offers to lend a hand with the care of his beloved, Mrs Bates embraces the idea, but Mr Bates remains skeptical - and rightfully so as there is something rather strange about Martin. Yet Martin manages to win him over by sharing Mr Bates' xenophobic ideas and "England first" ideology. 

 

Mr Bates (Paul Clayton)

Although Dennis Potter's play was written in the mid-1970s, it is still very relevant today. Paul Clayton's Mr Bates is a patriarch who considers his home his castle. He does not like the changes that he has experienced over the past couple of decades and wants back "his England" - the way it was when he was a child, which means getting rid of a large part of the current population. When Martin describes the unavoidable consequences of such an action, Mr Bates is appalled and denies that he would ever support such crimes - although he is a devout member of the Nationalist Party. Stephanie Beattie portrays Mrs Bates as a docile housewife who always tries to be pleasant for her husband's sake but is now so desperate to get out of the house that she doesn't mind leaving a complete stranger alone with her helpless daughter. Fergus Leathem playing Martin with a mix of smarmy charm and sardonic humour, delivers a clumsy one-note rendition of "You Are My Sunshine" to sway Mrs Bates' doubts. She trustingly dashes off to have her hair done, whilst Martin sexually abuses Pattie. Olivia Beardsley is outstanding as the severely disabled girl.  

Rachael Ryan's exquisite set features a stuffy living room with wallpaper with a rather unappealing floral design, suffocating any liberating thought. The sound design by Philip Matejtschuk ranges from Mantovani's violins to the wrath of God, adding to the eerieness of the story. 

Matthew Parker's production brings out the absurdity and dark humour of Dennis Potter's play. One finds oneself laughing before one chokes on one's laughter because this is really no laughing matter, or is it?

An outstanding rediscovery that should not be missed.

By Carolin Kopplin 

Until 20th May 2017

Hope Theatre

Running time: 90 minutes without an interval

Photo credit: lhphotoshots.jpg

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