Am always attracted to plays that are shrouded in controversy and Brimstone & Treacle is certainly one of those. Written for television by Dennis Potter in 1976, it was ten years before it was broadcast. At the time the director of programming described it as "brilliantly written and made but nauseating". A rewritten version for the stage was performed in 1977.
Thirty-six years of de-sensitising later and Brimstone still shocks or at least one particular scene does. There was a perceptible shift in the atmosphere in theatre from warm enjoyment and mirth to an awkward, stiff incredulity at what was unfolding on the stage. The silence couldn't have been more complete if everyone had held their breath.
Up until then there had been a good dose of humour, albeit with sinister undertones. Martin Taylor (Rupert Friend) ingratiates his way into the home of Mr and Mrs Bates (Ian Redford and Tessa Peake-Jones) claiming to have been in love with their daughter Pattie (Mattie Houghton) - still in love in fact. Pattie was hit by a car two years earlier and lies bed bound, twitching involuntary and unable to speak.
Martin oozes charm, is polite, helpful and says all the right things but sly asides, sometimes just a look straight at the audience, exposes a wolf beneath the sheep's clothing. Is he just a fraudster casing the joint for valuables or is there something more sinister in his attentions?
Mrs Bates is completely won over as he starts to give her an escape route from her labourious carer and house wife routine but conservative, National Front-leaning Mr Bates is sceptical.
But Brimstone isn't merely about goodies and baddies, Potter twists the morals so that wolves become sheep and sheep become wolves raising questions about when a wrong overpowers a right, a right overpowers a wrong.
This 90 minute piece packs punch. Potter described it as his best work and it is brilliantly written. The cast are uniformly superb - indeed it is a treat to see such a quality production in such a tiny venue, a venue incidentally that works very well at creating the claustrophobic, closeted atmosphere of the Bates's home.
I'm going to give it four and a half stars. It runs at the Arcola's studio space until June 2 and I saw a preview performance.
There are a couple of second degree links which leap out, firstly Rupert Friend was in Young Victoria, as was Miranda Richardson who appeared on stage at the Royal Court with Mr Whishaw for a reading of the Carol Churchill play Ice Cream. (Like that one as I don't think I've used Ice Cream before.)
And Ian Redford was in The Devil's Whore which starred Andrea Riseborough who was in The Pride with Mr W.