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Brimstone & Treacle

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Brimstone and Treacle is Dennis Potter's own Entertaining Mr Sloane but where the interloper in Joe Orton's 1964 comedy draws the line at seduction, Potter's notoriously extends to the rape of a brain-damaged, bed-ridden young woman.

Little wonder that the BBC which commissioned Brimstone and Treacle in 1976 deemed it “nauseating” and shelved it for a decade. Potter re-wrote it for the stage and it was staged at the Crucible, Sheffield the following year. A film version starring Sting in the central role was released in 1982.

It is 1977 and Britain is gearing up for the Queen's silver jubilee. The polite and handsome young Martin Taylor (Rupert Friend) turns up on the suburban doorstop of Mr and Mrs Bates (Ian Redford and Tessa Peake-Jones) claiming to be a former boyfriend of their daughter Pattie (Matti Houghton).

Unable to communicate or perform any basic tasks for herself since a hit-and-run accident two years ago Pattie is confined to a bed in the Bates's living room and requires constant care . For Mrs Bates, Taylor's arrival is a godsend: here is a young man who willingly cooks, cleans and not only tends to but cares for Pattie. For the first time in years Mrs Bates is given the opportunity and the encouragement to leave the house and even have her hair done.

Her husband is more suspicious and rightly so. Some rather heavy-handed complicity between Taylor and the audience makes it clear from early on that Martin is no angel but a chancer out to wring from the situation whatever comforts he can (a roof over his head, a vagina).

That anything approaching humour could co-exist with these ingredients is a mark of Potter's skill as a writer but also the confidence of Amelia Sears' direction and the quality of the performances. Ian Redford and Tessa Peake-Jones are superb as the stale-mated couple whose lives have been permanently put on hold with diametrically opposed outlooks - she optimistic of some kind of recovery for Pattie, he insistent that “you might as well pray for the recovery of a cabbage”. Matti Houghton is utterly convincing as Pattie. Rupert Friend oozes charm.

Alex Eales' fastidious 1977 design helps to conjure up the feeling of suffocating insularity with a palette as drained of colour as the Bates's own lives.

Potter's brew is perhaps over-rich in themes and the implicit idea that the real horror is not the rape but the unchecked right wing sentiments held by Mr Bates feels like an unnecessarily odious comparison. But this is a champion revival of what Potter considered to be his best play and benefits from an added frisson courtesy of its diamond jubilee timing.

-- Andrew Rogers

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