Brimstone and Treacle

Te Whaea - The Garage, 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wellington

24/05/2006 - 27/05/2006

Production Details

By Dennis Potter
Directed & designed by Sally Richards

Sally Richards is proud to present British dramatist Dennis Potter’s infamous and wickedly humorous thriller, Brimstone and Treacle. The play was originally banned by BBC television in 1976 for being ‘nauseating’ and is recommended for those over the age of 18 as some content may disturb.

This is Sally’s major directing project for her MTA.

Time:  7.30pm, Wed 24 – Sat 27 May
Venue:  The Garage, Te Whaea National Dance & Drama Centre, 11 Hutchison Rd, Newtown, Wgtn
Cost:    $15 / $12
Book:  04 381 9253 (automated line)


PATTIE - Yvette Reid

TOM - Malcolm Murray

AMY - Sylivia Rands

MARTIN - Sam Snedden

Lighting Designer - Megan Peacock
Sound Designer/ Sound & Lighting Operator - Kerina Deas
Stage Manager - Helena Coulton
Research & Production Assistant - Kylie O'Callaghan
Poste & Programme Designer - Graeme Offord
Publicist - Brianne Kerr
Photographer - Willem Wassenaar
FOH Manager - Patrick Davies

Theatre ,

2 hrs incl. interval

An allegory? For what?

Review by John Smythe 27th May 2006

I was there in 1976, at the television conference in Edinburgh where the diminutive, red-headed Dennis Potter – skin flaking and fists clenched with acute psoriatic arthropathy – confronted the BBC suits via radio mic across a crowded plenary session.

Why had they commissioned three plays – Double Dare, Where Adam Stood and Brimstone and Treacle – for the ‘Play For Today’ slot, passed them through every script development stage and produced them, then failed to broadcast Brimstone and Treacle? Why had they informed Potter of this effective banning by way of a curt three-line letter then failed to respond to his further enquiries? In the year since, he had not written a word.

It emerged that Director of Television Programming Alasdair Milne had found it “brilliantly written and made, but nauseating”. So? The wider debate around the roles of drama, television and censorship raged, Potter got a face-to-face meeting, he returned home to write Pennies from Heaven and the rest occupies a fair chunk of British television history. While Brimstone and Treacle didn’t reachthe small screen until 1987, his stage adaptation premiered in October 1977.

That Edinburgh conference was also where I first heard Potter and other leading TV script writers speak of “realism and non-naturalism” as their way of exploring the human condition and the socio-political, ethical and metaphysical issues they sought to confront.

The following year Potter would reveal that while he was writing Brimstone and Treacle, his physical condition had, “perhaps inevitably, mediated my view of the world and the people in it. I recall writing (and the words now make me shudder) that the only meaningful sacrament left to human beings was for them to gather in the streets in order to be sick together, splashing vomit on the paving stones as the final and most eloquent plea to an apparently deaf, dumb and blind God … I was engaged in an extremely severe struggle not so much against the dull grind of a painful and debilitating illness but with unresolved, almost unacknowledged, ‘spiritual’ questions.”

This explains a lot as we struggle – inevitably, because we’re human – to find the greater meaning in Brimstone and Treacle, intelligently directed and designed by Sally Richards as her graduation production for Master of Theatre Arts in Directing (Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School & Victoria University of Wellington).

Ingeniously set in the black-walled garage space at Te Whaea, we walk between defined white lines en route to the bank of seats that observe the home of Tom and Amy Bates, where their brain-damaged young adult daughter Pattie languishes on a hospital bed, in the living room. The headlights of an English car – Austin, I think – cast long shadows. The juxtapositions of light and dark are stark.

The involuntary twisting and jerking of Pattie (Yvette Reid), and her random, incomprehensible noises, personify the chaos of a radically changed world over which no-one has control. It emerges she was hit by a car two years ago, and degrees of guilt over who was where with whom at the time, and why, inform her parents’ present states of being.

Tom (Malcolm Murray) wants everything to be as it was and should be. He sees Pattie as a vegetable and has no hope for her future: “There is no God, there are no miracles.” He feels utterly alienated in his own country and his own home. For him the National Front seems to offer answers: easy targets to blame; a vision of England as it should be: white.

Amy (Sylvia Rands) – unrelenting care giver and unappreciated wife – believes Pattie comprehends more than she can communicate. She clings to the hope that another shock could liberate her from the cerebral palsy that traps her true being. “We can’t go on living like this,” she declares. “We need someone to save us.”

Cue the arrival of Martin, with Tom’s wallet. Something happened in town that day. The details are confused. Martin had collapsed, Tom was one of many who came to help, there was a conversation where Martin claimed to have known Pattie at art school … Or did he collapse after he found out what had happened to Pattie …?

Now he claims that he loved her, he proposed, then went to America to give her time to think about it. His clear destiny, now, is to look after her. And do the housework and prepare the meals. Truly he must be an angel, sent by God to answer Amy’s prayers … Except when it’s just him and Pattie, he becomes a very a different person: a sociopathic, fascist rapist.

The knowing looks (scripted) that Martin flicks at the audience, and his non-naturalistic use of the space at times, suggest he’s an agent of Denis Potter, masquerading alternately as an instrument of both God and the Devil with amoral dispassion. But to what purpose?

Having liberated Amy from drudgery, Martin does the same for Tom with a surrealistic reality check that takes his neo-fascist National Front principles to their logical conclusion of concentration camps and ethnic cleansing. A strange joy imbues them all …

The second rape, when Tom and Amy have gone to bed, provokes screaming from Pattie, sending Martin running into the night and her parents running to her side. The twist is that the shock of it gives Pattie her voice back: “What happened, Daddy?”

“Nothing,” he replies. “Nothing at all.”

So what are we to make of it? The end justifies the means? Surely not.

Before that final moment it seems like a cautionary tale, teaching us not to help people in the street or not to believe in the impossible. Afterwards I wonder if, following in the footsteps of Sophocles, Potter is out to prove we may never outwit the twin Gods of good and evil. If so, what crime was committed to provoke this upset in equilibrium?

It’s something to do with what really happened between Tom and Pattie’s flatmate – the one he’s been calling a slut – on that fateful day when something made Pattie run into the road. And here’s where the adaptation from screen to stage seems to render the back-story more obscure than it should be.

My personal conclusion – and everyone will have their own – is that it’s an allegory. Pattie’s vegetative state is a consequence of the lies, hypocrisy and destructive intolerance inherent in everyday English values. Only when the truth is confronted head on, and recognised for what it is, can we hope to achieve the integrity and equilibrium that will save our souls. But Tom’s final denial – “Nothing. Nothing at all.” – suggests that true resolution is still a long way off.

Or maybe this is Potter’s version of nihilism and/or Chaos Theory. Everything is random, our lives have no meaning, and our desperate need for it fundamentally foolish. As he later admitted, he was having a bad year.

Aside from the clarity issues – which I ascribe to the play and its stage adaptation especially – Sally Richards directs Brimstone and Treacle in a way that compels our attention without (as she notes in the programme) allowing us the comforts of sentiment or sanctimony. Emotional and intellectual complacency are right off the agenda. And the liberal use of upbeat pop-songs points very clearly to where Potter is headed with Pennies from Heaven.

Seasoned professionals Malcolm Murray and Sylvia Rands anchor the play solidly in the middle class values and knee-jerk behaviours Potter seeks to challenge, leaving the student actors to rise to the non-naturalistic realms of his reality.

Sam Snedden’s Martin is a chameleon, totally convincing in whatever moment he inhabits. Yvette Reid makes Pattie’s incomprehensibility stunningly eloquent. Both meet the huge challenges of their roles with alacrity.


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Seductive work still packs a punch

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 27th May 2006

Bruce Mason, when he reviewed Circa’s 1980 production of Dennis Potter’s stage adaptation of his own banned TV play Brimstone and Treacle, stated that it contained the most repellent and repulsive scene ever staged in our theatre and it caused angry discussions in the interval with one person not returning for the second half.

No such reactions were discernible during the interval at the draughty Garage Space under Te Whaea where Sally Richards’ production of this once notorious play is being presented as part of The Master of Theatre Arts in Directing, which is taught by Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School and the Theatre Programme of Victoria University of Wellington.

Some of the most exciting theatre in Wellington over the past three years has been seen in these MTA productions and Brimstone and Treacle adds to the excitement with a production that boasts four top-notch performances from Malcolm Murray as Tom Bates, Sylvia Rands as his long-suffering wife Amy, Yvette Reid as their daughter Pattie, once a lively art student and now brain-damaged from a car accident two years before, and Sam Snedden as Martin, a young man who smells slightly of sulphur and who charms his way into the unhappy home with a story that he was secretly engaged to Pattie before the accident.

This play, which teeters on the edge of being a very black comedy, is about, to paraphrase Potter’s words, an evil act leading to good consequences and a good act leading to evil consequences. While as a play it never quite satisfies – the mixing of fantasy (is Martin a demon?) and naturalism (the Bates’s dull marriage and suburban life), with horrific sensationalism (the rape of mentally disturbed young woman) – it nevertheless packs a punch.

This split between fantasy and naturalism is reflected in the setting of the Bates’s 1970s conventionally furnished living room which is surrounded by a large, eerie, shadowy space that gives the effect of a household set apart, not connected with everyday life though Tom goes off to work and talks about the National Front and the blacks.

However, it is in her handling of her actors that Sally Richards’s production overcomes the difficulties of Potter’s script. Malcolm Murray is a tight knot of anger and hatred as Tom, while Sylvia Rands has all the warmth and naiveté of a Mumsy as Martin seductively calls Amy. Yvette Reid makes Pattie’s inarticulateness painful to watch and hear, while Sam Snedden switches from charm to evil and directing an occasional knowing grin as well as a sanctimonious smirk at the audience that are unsettling because one feels that one has been seduced too.


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