Brimstone and Treacle

Review

HumDrum Theatre doesn't shy away from strong material, and Dennis Potter's stage adaptation of his 1974 television play still packs a punch. Tom and Amy are a middle-class couple, and after a road accident leaves their daughter, Patti, with severe brain damage, they are forced into virtual seclusion.

Sustained only by Amy's religious faith and Tom's bitter despair, they wait for someone to bring them salvation. And then Martin arrives...

Brimstone and Treacle has all the themes of Potter's later television work - bigotry sugared by nostalgia, the subversion of innocence and the pitfalls of optimism.

Uncompromising performances drive this nasty tale to its unexpected conclusion in Sam Sampson's vivid production. James George catches Tom's contempt for his wife, the world and himself, all with his characteristic stillness.

Sarah Parnell as Amy bears the burden of their marriage perfectly. Despite the blindness of her faith in the malevolent Martin, Parnell keeps us emotionally engaged by this sad and silly woman.

As Martin, Michael Gondelle has the toughest job, being at once a contemptible con-man and something much more demonic.

He has tremendous vocal range, although at times he could be more physically mercurial, letting the audience do more work by signalling his intentions less openly. Lastly, Emma Van Kooperen is excellent as Patti, powerfully focussed throughout on the action around her.

David Penrose - The News

 

Acclaimed theatre group HumDrum have once again produced an immensely powerful and provocative production with "Brimstone and Treacle". Written in 1974 by Dennis Potter as part of the 'Play for Today' tv series, it was thought too repugnant to be broadcast and was dropped by the BBC. Potter however considered it to be his best play and adapted it for the stage in 1977. Potter is known for his dysfunctional characters, disturbing scenarios and formula for mixing fantasy with natural action, this play being no exception.

The storyline focuses on the drab lives of a middle-class couple uncovering the emptiness of their marriage following the tragic hit-and-run that rendered their attractive young art student daughter to a brain damaged bedridden invalid. The bleak suburban existence that is Tom and Amy's world is compounded by Tom's tyrannical hold over his meek fervently religious wife. His deep-rooted prejudices, racism and membership of the National Front all reveal his frustration with the situation they find themselves in. Amy on the other hand has become full-time carer to their severely disabled child, never leaving the house and constantly praying for a miracle cure. When a charming stranger turns up on the pretext of returning Tom's wallet and claiming to be their daughter's secret fiance, he charms his way into their house offering to care for their vulnerable daughter, allowing Amy to take a much-needed break. However, this Satanic figure not only fuels Tom's extremism, manipulates Amy but violates the paralysed victim. Various truths ensue ultimately resulting in Patti's shocking realisation.

Sam Sampson first came across this controversial play in his teens and has clearly relished this opportunity being not only director but also set and sound designer!

An exceptionally committed cast of four bring this uncomfortably hellish story-telling to life with HumDrum newcomer Sarah Parnell taking on the character of down-trodden, reclusive wife Amy Bates so gullibly taken in by the interloper's flattery. Michael Gondelle is excellent as the villain Martin Taylor unashamedly manipulating the couple and brutally assaulting the helpless Patti Bates. Emma Van Kooperen has the incredibly challenging role of paralysed Patti, only able to utter incoherent sounds and she is totally convincing writhing, scowling and finally screaming. A compelling and spirited performance too from James George ~ the embittered depressive Tom Bates.

A highly-charged, harrowing and powerful production ~ somewhat shocking to watch, the final twist leaving the audience quite stunned.

Jill Lawrie - remotegoat.com

 

Why do we go the theatre? What is it that we hope to get out of an experience where we part with our hard earned cash to sit for two or more hours and watch a group of actors perform in front of us? Do we go because we hope to learn something new that we didn't already know? Perhaps it's escapism to take us away from the bad day at work or the the dreaded weekly shop at Tesco?

I believe we go to the theatre because we want to be captivated by something. Something that's so compelling you can't bear to miss a single second. Something that draws you in so much that even when it makes you feel uncomfortable you revel in the disgust of what you've just seen unfold before your eyes. As an actor and as a director, I believe that if you can generate that distinct feeling within your audience then you have made magic happen. And I must say, HumDrum do exactly that and then some with their exquisite offering of 'Brimstone & Treacle' this week at The Spring, Havant.

Originally written as part of the BBC's 70s 'Play For Today' series by Dennis Potter, 'Brimstone And Treacle' was immediately pulled just before it was due to be broadcast for fear of a national outcry at the depiction of the harrowingly dark themes of it's story.

Centred around just four characters, we follow the events of the Bates family - Tom (James George), his wife Amy (Sarah Parnell) and their daughter Patti (Emma Van Kooperen). The tone of the production is already set so distinctively before Act One has even started with Patti lying on her sick bed in the centre of her parents' 1970's living room. We soon come to realise that a car crash from two years ago has caused severe physical damage to Patti that is likely to see her never fully recover, much like the obvious state of her parents' marriage in the aftermath of her paralysis.

Enter Martin Taylor (Michael Gondelle) - a smooth talking, charming wordsmith who seems to somehow know Patti from his past and will stop at nothing in order to convince Tom and Amy to let him in to their home and get close to Patti once more. With Tom so wallowed by his own personal demons and Amy so desperately blinded by clinging on to every last ounce of hope that life will one day grant her some happiness, Martin is able to play God in the Bates' household and take control of Patti in any way he desires.

Emma Van Kooperen gives the performance of a lifetime as the physically paralysed Patti Bates. Never before have I witnessed an actor with so few lines to make such an impact as part of the storytelling process. With every move, look, groan and spit she gives, she delivers with a conviction and honesty that is so real you can't quite believe that this is a dramatic performance and not a genuine persona. I will continue to hear those blood-curdling screams for a long time following this. She is equally matched by Michael Gondelle who delivers such a hellishly evil performance as Martin Taylor that we just keep willing either Tom or Amy to figure out what he's up to in order to stop him.

Sarah Parnell delivers an exquisite performance as Amy Bates, the put-upon wife and mother so desperately trying to grasp at any glimmer of hope - no matter how glaringly false it is. Ms Parnell achieves perfection on every line she delivers, always judging it just right to get the correct and, ultimately tricky, balance of comedy and drama on point.

James George is outstanding as Tom Bates, the stern and steely fronted husband, who only lets his guard down to reveal his true feelings and identity when he feels he's not being watched. Both Mr George and Ms Parnell worked so impeccably well together, you could be forgiven for believing they were actually a real-life married couple. The moment between Tom and Patti in the first quarter of Act One where he sings softly to Patti at her bedside is truly heartbreaking.

Director Sam Sampson obviously has a deep passion for this piece, as detailed within his Director's Notes, and that passion is clearly what has steered this production towards the excellence it achieves. From the diverse range of characterisations he has developed, through to the impeccable attention to detail of the 1970's setting, he has successfully ensured that his audiences are able to become exactly what a piece like this strives for its audience to be - the fourth wall of the living room, soaking up every comical, uncomfortable and tragically horrific moment that occurs within its presence.

An exceptional theatrical experience that will stay with me for a very long time to come. So it was definitely worth going to the theatre after all...

Stuart Frank - portsmouththeatre.com