Review: Brimstone and Treacle, Arcola Theatre

“All I want is the England I used to know”

There was something depressingly predictable about the announcement of the Arcola’s new development plans for the summer which will involve moving the one space I think does work in their new premises – Studio 2 – down one level into the basement. So it was with a sad heart that I took my seat for the final production in its current state, a rare revival of Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle which of course played beautifully to the studio’s strengths.

The intimate space becomes the claustrophobic home of the Bates family with parents Tom and Amy struggling to look after their daughter Pattie who was practically paralysed by a hit-and-run accident two years previously and can’t do anything for herself any more. When a devilishly handsome stranger insinuates his way into their household, claiming to have had a close connection with Pattie before she died, he really puts the cat amongst the pigeons and changes their lives irrevocably.

Potter originally wrote this for television but it was considered so shocking that it lay unreleased for over 10 years. For he goes dark here, extremely so as it turns out where Martin’s motives for offering to help out with caring for Pattie really lie, but in the midst of the action (and there’s only really the one really shocking moment, albeit quite considerably so) he does raise interesting questions about concepts of good and evil and what happens the latter leads to the former.

Amelia Sears’ production is extremely well-judged: there’s no escape in this theatre from what is unfolding in front of us, as there’s no way out for the Bates’ either, and the intimacy makes us an almost complicit part of the action, something alluded to brilliantly by the knowing looks given us by Martin. Rupert Friend is suavely compelling as this elusive figure, but I was particularly moved by the quiet work of Tessa Peake-Jones and Ian Redford as the put-upon parents and Matti Houghton’s fearsome efforts as Pattie. Not easy viewing, but close to essential and thus highly recommended.  

Running time: 90 minutes
Photo: Judie Waldmann

Booking until 2nd June

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