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Shocking tale lacks a certain devilish threat



Review by Hannah Knowles

BEING raped by the devil as a cure for severe mental disability? Well, one thing Dennis Potter can never be accused of is avoiding controversy.

Satan pays a visit to suburbia in Brimstone & Treacle, which sees Potter not so much challenging as riding roughshod over conventional religious and moral values.

For a company that states their aim as being ‘to explode the myth that theatre is a sedentary experience’, 1066 productions’ choice of playwright is certainly apt.

Several venues apparently turned the company down when they approached them with Brimstone & Treacle, so all credit to the Bridewell Theatre for welcoming 1066 under their roof with this production.

Brimstone & Treacle is set in the middle class, north London household of the Bates family.

Everything is immaculately turned out, and Mr and Mrs Bates look every inch the stereotypical suburban middle-aged couple.

But right in the heart of their home is an issue that cannot be tidied away; the Bates’ daughter, Pattie, is severely disabled, and has been since she was run over by a car two years previous to the play’s opening scene.

Maria Carson produces an astonishing performance as Pattie, whose inarticulate cries and moans seem paradoxically to vocalise the repressed emotions of her parents.

Mr Bates refuses to regard his daughter as anything other than ‘a vegetable’, and when his wife is out of earshot says to Pattie, 'You’ve gone, haven’t you? Far, far away.’

The bickering of the couple escalates, largely thanks to his obnoxious demands and insensitivity, but just as their life is becoming too relentless to bear, a charismatic young man walks into their lives, claiming to have been a former lover of Pattie’s while she was at art college.

Chris Hastings’ debonair devil, Martin, succeeds in charming his way into the Bates’ household, cleaning and cooking and appearing to dote on Pattie, all the while doing all he can to get Mrs Bates out of the house, so he can rape her daughter.

Laugh a minute it ain’t, but despite the difficult subject matter, Alistair Green’s production is never as dark or as unsettling as it should be.

For some reason, Green has chosen to direct Brimstone with a lightness of touch that brings to mind the quaint British sitcoms of the ’70s.

The main problem is that while Hastings is utterly persuasive as a charmer, he is hardly credible as devilish threat to the family.

Although he delivers the occasional pantomime grin to the audience, we never get a sense of genuine wickedness or danger, so the message of the second rape scene – of a world turned morally upside down, with the evil performing good deeds and the good, evil – is softened.

Similarly, the production never makes enough of the character of Mr Bates.

He is, we learn, the cause of his daughter’s disability, after she ran out into the road upon seeing him having sex with one of her friends.

His callousness towards Pattie can be explained by his fear and guilt over this secret, but Peter Sundby’s performance rarely comes across as anything more than a caricature of bored middle-aged man.

As an evening’s entertainment, 1066 production’s Brimstone & Treacle is highly watchable and well-acted.

But as a performance of a highly charged piece that asks some probing questions about our society, it is all too comfortable.

If the company really want to challenge the view of theatre as a sedentary experience, they’ll have to do more than pick controversial scripts.

However, there’s a considerable amount of talent in their ranks, so if they’re prepared to take more risks in future, perhaps they will achieve their goal.

Performances at The Bridewell Theatre, Bride Lane (Off Fleet St), London, EC4Y 8EQ.
Box Office: 020 7936 3456 / or by clicking here.
Performance times: July 13 - August 7, 2004. Tue-Sun at 7.30pm, mats Sun at 3.30pm.
Ticket prices: Full £14.50, cons. £11, preview tickets £7.50; (Sundays at 7.30pm - first 50 tickets 'pay what you can')

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