Writer: Patrick Hamilton
Director: Anthony Banks
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels
A classic Victorian melodrama with psychological undertones, Gaslight was written and first produced in 1939 but has all the elements of the era in which it is set. Not least of these is the title, which gave rise to the term ‘Gaslighting,’meaning a form of mental abuse – domestic abuse in particular. Running beneath the thriller element, this issue, is still relevant now, although this is not the case in other respects i.e. the issue of women’s rights in Victorian times which has moved on.
Putting this much-discussed element aside, this latest revival, has one important feature. While not quite the ‘spookiness’ of the Academy Award-winning 1944 MGM film starring Charley Boyer and Ingrid Bergman which the more mature members of the audience may still remember as sending shivers down the spine in every scene, director Anthony Banks’ reproduction has a comic element which works well.
Set in the mid-1880s, the plot centres around a young wife, Bella Manningham, played by Kara Tointon (recently seen on our TV screens in Halcyon) whose husband Jack is slowly convincing her that she is going mad. Left alone every evening in a gloomy house in London while her husband (Rupert Young) is out on the town, Bella is becoming increasingly scared by the disappearance of various objects, unexplained footsteps overhead, and the mysterious flickering on and off the gas lights. Is the terror paranoia, brought on by her bullying husband who, under the guise of pretending his love for her, manipulates her like a puppet a string – does it exist purely in her imagination? Or is she going mad? Bella’s doubts are further fuelled by the knowledge of her mother’s descent into madness and committal to an asylum. It is left to a retired detective Police Inspector, played with evident relish by Keith Allen, to solve the mystery – and in doing so make a shocking discovery.
Tointon is a convincingly distracted Bella who calls forth our sympathy, while Young plays it cool as a the villainous Manning with a calculated nastiness, but it is Allen, as the unconventional Police inspector hot on the trail of a murderer still at large after a crime committed several years ago, who lifts this production out of the run of the mill. Under the direction of Anthony Banks, the playwright’s wry sense of humour rises to the fore, due in no small part to excellent timing by Allen. A neat portrayal by Charlotte Blackledge as Nancy, the Manningham’s pert maid with secrets of her own and a steamy although brief sex scene gives an edge to the production, with Helen Anderson in the cameo role of the housekeeper.
David Woodhead’s set is a faithful reproduction of a middle class sitting room in Victorian times, with a distorting mirror and hidden doors adding to the claustrophobic atmosphere, aided and abetted by lighting designer Howard Hudson’s masterly soft lighting and faithful reproduction of gas lighting – in the literal translation, that is.
Runs until Saturday March 18 | Image: Manuel Harlan