Brimstone and Treacle

Dennis Potter

Matti Houghton as Pattie and Rupert Friend as Martin Credit: Judie Waldmann

Dennis Potter's controversial script was banned by BBC allegedly because of its ‘nauseating' nature. In reality, it was because it represented the rape scene of a disabled young woman.

The Arcola revival succeeds in re-creating the disturbing essence of the script by faithfully bringing us back to late 70s Britain through a hyper-realistic style that beautifully depicts a Britain that we might still recognise.

The Bates innocently—especially Mrs Bates, played by Tessa Peake-Jones—and naively let young man Martin Taylor (Rupert Friend) into their house after passing for an old friend of their disabled daughter, Pattie (Matti Houghton). Pattie, who had been run over by a car two years earlier, is severely mentally disabled, reduced to a child-like state. Martin then takes advantage of the situation and rapes Pattie twice.

The hyper-realistic style is in the detail of the set, the music and the cultural references to a Britain where the new and the old, national pride and a multi-racial society still lived in strict contrast with each other.

Mr Bates, beautifully and charmingly played by Ian Redford, wants a Britain for the British, which strangely resonates with the present-day's increasing xenophobia. Mr Taylor's genuine confessions that he has joined National Front ring true to present day dissatisfaction with a society that alienates and is full of cultural ghettoes.

What rings less true and, to some extent, outdated in this play and in this production is the story of the intrusion, of how Martin Taylor easily enters the Bates' household under false pretences. We are a society that is too suspicious of strangers and Mrs Bates's naivety, which is occasionally over-played and almost a caricature.

This detracts a little from the effectiveness of the story and, because the show itself is over-realistic, one can start to wonder on the whys and hows behind Martin Taylor's presence and motives: for instance, it is not clear how he knew about Patti. He bumped into Mr Taylor as if he knew about Pattie but how could he possibly have known about this?

Moreover, it is because of the director's choice to show very clearly from the start Martin's dark side that the element of surprise, the contrast between good and evil, the extreme niceness of the young man and his perverse intentions are lost a little. From the very start, Martin hints about his intentions by blinking and briefly grinning to the audience. This was a device that Dennis Potter loved to use in his TV mini-series The Singing Detective, where Michael Gambon occasionally addressed the viewers making own comments.

However, it is sparsely and inconsistently used here. The ending reflects these rare directorial inconsistencies and we are left wondering what actually happens and whether this was the most plausible ending to such a play.

This does not detract from the solid production where the shocking element, the infamous act of rape, is still quite disturbing, but above all it is the representation of a disabled young woman on stage that affects and perturbs most.

It is indeed the bravura of the four actors with some sounded direction by Amelia Sears and a talented creative team that makes this show a captivating and compassionate theatrical experience. Rupert Friend as Martin is convincing and charming, so is Tessa Peake-jones as Mrs Bates; Mattie Houghton amazingly sustains throughout the show her intense yet balanced performance as a disabled child-like Pattie.

But it is Ian Redford playing the conflict-ridden ‘nationalist', proud father that blew me away in his skill to interpret the complexity and the humanity of this guilty character who cannot find real consolation.

Apart from the few flaws which I suspect can be connected to Sears's reverence to the original script, this show is very good quality theatre.

Reviewer: Mary Mazzilli

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