Dennis Potter’s TV play Brimstone and Treacle was banned by the BBC for over a decade after it was filmed in 1976. Having seen director Amelia Sears’ superb revival at the Arcola, it’s not hard to imagine why: this is a disturbing story, one that still has the power to leave many members of its audience shaken and appalled.
Tom and Amy Bates, a middle-class, middle-aged couple, spend their days caring for their profoundly disabled daughter Pattie. As the couple reach the end of their patience with their increasingly depressing lives, a stranger – Martin – arrives in their world and changes everything.
Potter’s interest here is the nature of evil. In Martin – played with incredible subtlety and strength by Rupert Friend – we see human evil at its worst, a man who capable of inflicting pain with sing-song glee and a coating of charm. From the outset, Potter makes sure the audience aren’t mere passive observers to all this; Martin’s knowing glances and asides take us into his confidence as he sets about further ruining the Bateses’ already hopeless lives, and force us to ask why we’re unable to do anything about it. We’re further unsettled by the eventual conclusion that every outrage might actually be necessary; why intervene when evil can have positive consequences?
In creating the Bates family, Potter borrows from scripture to look at how temptation and ignorance can turn seemingly decent people into agents of suffering – and how God, if he’s there at all, doesn’t seem to be interested in helping us. Ian Redford’s Tom, though apparently decent at heart, is 1970s masculinity at its worst: grumpy, sexist and deeply racist, terrified by the way Britain is changing around him. At first wary of Martin’s evident slipperiness, he is soon taken in as his own racism is echoed, up to the extremes of messianic Nazism. Tom’s stay-at-home wife Amy (Tessa Peake-Jones) not only fails to see through Martin’s weasel words, but actively helps him weave his way into the family. Futility thus wreaks chaos; Amy can’t claim to be innocent as Tom and her own conscience warn her that Martin is not all he seems.
Though virtually wordless, Pattie is the only character present from start to finish, regularly dragging our attention away from self-indulgence or prejudice to utter helplessness. Matti Houghton’s physically and emotionally draining performance forces us to ask if we’re any less trapped or helpless than Pattie – or, worse, if we’re somehow complicit in her unimaginable suffering. It’s hard not to feel deeply moved by Pattie’s situation: trapped in her own body, writhing on a grubby hospital bed in a drearily spick-and-span suburban living room (created in meticulous period detail by Alex Eales and superbly lit by Richard Howell). What hope do any of us have, when we could find ourselves similarly trapped and tortured at the whim of biology or brutality?
Potter wrote Brimstone and Treacle while in excruciating pain, railing against his own helplessness and a Britain seemingly on the brink of economic and social collapse. Although it’s, on one hand, a play very much of its own time, as we see the world shuddering and shifting around us it’s hard to imagine a more relevant play for today.