BRIMSTONE AND TREACLE
Theatre at Baddow at the Parish Hall
This was Dennis Potter's favourite of his plays. Famously, it was kept off the BBC for years, and this theatrical version was made to get it in front of an audience.
Forty years later, it still has the power to shock and offend. The callous abuse, and the nationalistic bigotry, still all too recognisable in our society today.
It is not often staged, so we should be doubly impressed that this enterprising group have selected it, and presented it so well.
The setting is the 70s – brown wallpaper – convincingly furnished, even if the lighting could more subtly have suggested the darkness of these blighted lives: “We live in the shadows...” says Tom.
John Mabey's thoughtful production benefits from a strong quartet of players. Jean Speller is Amy, weariness and distress etched on her face as she smooths the moth-eaten knitted throw. She still clings to the hope that her severely disabled daughter [a convincing performance from Vicky Wright in a very challenging role] will one day come back to them. Her husband – Bob Ryall – is sceptical. Drawn to the fascist National Front, he speaks tellingly of a dog in the distance, and of his nightmare of impotent paralysis. He is convinced that the ingratiating stranger who invades their private lives is “up to something”.
In Andy Poole's chilling performance, "Martin" has the air of a doorstep evangelist, with his easy charm and oleaginous smile. As often with Potter, religious references abound. There's a “whiff of sulphur” - the brimstone of the title – about this helpful saint, who offers a smitten Amy “all the kingdoms of the earth”. Luke 4:5.
The production has many telling moments: in the Glenfiddich-fuelled final scene the two men talk their fascist talk literally over Amy's head. Martin's reaction speaks volumes as Tom longs to go back to the way things were. The mealy-mouthed prayer is done in a stylised spotlight, and Potter would surely have loved the shocking “seduction”, choreographed to the folle farandole of Piaf's La Foule.
The ending, genuinely shocking, raises more questions about the events which precede the play, and the cathartic role of the malevolent Martin.
It's possible to imagine a funnier take on the play, or a more nuanced Good Samaritan. But this is an impressive production of Potter's savage parable, just as provocatively offensive as it was back in the more innocent Seventies.
Image: Barry Taylor