Brimstone and Treacle, The Arcola, London


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The Independent Culture

Dennis Potter thought his twisted miracle story Brimstone and Treacle his best play.

It was written for television and made in 1976 but not screened by the BBC for a decade because of its shocking nature (the director of programmes found it “brilliantly written and made, but nauseating”). It charts the infiltration of a devilish stranger into a household where a couple cares for their grown-up daughter who has been left immobile and dribbling by a hit-and-run accident.

Amelia Sears’ production, which claims to be the first major London revival, furthers the case for it as Potter’s best work. The writing remains vital and the story still ghoulishly punchy 35 years after it was first adapted for the stage.

The star attraction is handsome Hollywood actor Rupert Friend. Keira Knightley’s former arm candy is excellent as the well-spoken and earnest version of Martin Taylor who worms and wheedles his way into the drab living room of Mr and Mrs Bates. He is a psychopath conman who simperingly dons a pinny, use phrases such as “don’t dilly dally ducky” and flatters Mrs Bates (whom he calls Mumsy) into allowing him to commit the most heinous abuse against her vulnerable daughter.

However, Friend’s ability to charm the pants off audiences (and the poor Mrs Bates) isn’t quite as handy for the moments when Martin must appear truly evil. There has been huge debate as to whether Potter intended the character to be a literal representation of Lucifer (Potter himself remained tight-lipped) but the writing demands Martin swivel at lightning speed from the saccharine to the repulsive. Friend, who is convincingly hideous at times, doesn’t quite produce the glints of sparkling menace required.

Tessa Peake-Jones as the downtrodden Mrs Bates in her suburban hell is sensational. Caring for her daughter Patti, who moans and writhes wretchedly onstage throughout (a brilliant performance by Matti Houghton), agreeing with the casual bigotry of her husband, the small-minded and revolting Mr Bates (Ian Redford, another strong performance), she is caged in that beige living room. At the start of the play she calls out for a hero, a saviour.

It is an incantation and duly, Martin, a saviour of sorts, is delivered. But the brand of miracle he performs is so repellent that even in 2012 it is possible to see why this play was too shocking for the Beeb. Not recommended for the faint-hearted.

Until 2 June, Box Office: 020 7503 1646