Reviewed by Stuart Frank
Havant Arts and Spring Heritage Centre
Why do we go the theatre? What is it that we hope to get out of an experience where we part with our hard earned cash to sit for two or more hours and watch a group of actors perform in front of us? Do we go because we hope to learn something new that we didn't already know? Perhaps it's escapism to take us away from the bad day at work or the the dreaded weekly shop at Tesco?
I believe we go to the theatre because we want to be captivated by something. Something that's so compelling you can't bear to miss a single second. Something that draws you in so much that even when it makes you feel uncomfortable you revel in the disgust of what you've just seen unfold before your eyes. As an actor and as a director, I believe that if you can generate that distinct feeling within your audience then you have made magic happen. And I must say, HumDrum do exactly that and then some with their exquisite offering of 'Brimstone & Treacle' this week at The Spring, Havant.
Originally written as part of the BBC's 70s 'Play For Today' series by Dennis Potter, 'Brimstone And Treacle' was immediately pulled just before it was due to be broadcast for fear of a national outcry at the depiction of the harrowingly dark themes of it's story.
Centred around just four characters, we follow the events of the Bates family - Tom (James George), his wife Amy (Sarah Parnell) and their daughter Patti (Emma Van Kooperen). The tone of the production is already set so distinctively before Act One has even started with Patti lying on her sick bed in the centre of her parents' 1970's living room. We soon come to realise that a car crash from two years ago has caused severe physical damage to Patti that is likely to see her never fully recover, much like the obvious state of her parents' marriage in the aftermath of her paralysis.
Enter Martin Taylor (Michael Gondelle) - a smooth talking, charming wordsmith who seems to somehow know Patti from his past and will stop at nothing in order to convince Tom and Amy to let him in to their home and get close to Patti once more. With Tom so wallowed by his own personal demons and Amy so desperately blinded by clinging on to every last ounce of hope that life will one day grant her some happiness, Martin is able to play God in the Bates' household and take control of Patti in any way he desires.
Emma Van Kooperen gives the performance of a lifetime as the physically paralysed Patti Bates. Never before have I witnessed an actor with so few lines to make such an impact as part of the storytelling process. With every move, look, groan and spit she gives, she delivers with a conviction and honesty that is so real you can't quite believe that this is a dramatic performance and not a genuine persona. I will continue to hear those blood-curdling screams for a long time following this. She is equally matched by Michael Gondelle who delivers such a hellishly evil performance as Martin Taylor that we just keep willing either Tom or Amy to figure out what he's up to in order to stop him.
Sarah Parnell delivers an exquisite performance as Amy Bates, the put-upon wife and mother so desperately trying to grasp at any glimmer of hope - no matter how glaringly false it is. Ms Parnell achieves perfection on every line she delivers, always judging it just right to get the correct and, ultimately tricky, balance of comedy and drama on point.
James George is outstanding as Tom Bates, the stern and steely fronted husband, who only lets his guard down to reveal his true feelings and identity when he feels he's not being watched. Both Mr George and Ms Parnell worked so impeccably well together, you could be forgiven for believing they were actually a real-life married couple. The moment between Tom and Patti in the first quarter of Act One where he sings softly to Patti at her bedside is truly heartbreaking.
Director Sam Sampson obviously has a deep passion for this piece, as detailed within his Director's Notes, and that passion is clearly what has steered this production towards the excellence it achieves. From the diverse range of characterisations he has developed, through to the impeccable attention to detail of the 1970's setting, he has successfully ensured that his audiences are able to become exactly what a piece like this strives for its audience to be - the fourth wall of the living room, soaking up every comical, uncomfortable and tragically horrific moment that occurs within its presence.
An exceptional theatrical experience that will stay with me for a very long time to come. So it was definitely worth going to the theatre after all...
Brimstone and Treacle runs until Saturday 30th September with a matinée at 2:30pm and an evening performance at 7:30pm. Tickets available by calling 02392 472700 or online at: