Writer: Patrick Hamilton
Director: Anthony Banks
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
There aren’t many plays whose names have become part of the dictionary. Patrick Hamilton’s psychological melodrama is one of the few, with ‘gaslighting’ coming to mean the mental abuse that causes someone to doubt their own sanity in the manner that Gaslight’s Jack Manningham inflicts on his wife Bella.
Indeed, the phrase has become so well-known – from headline-grabbing storylines of domestic abuse in The Archers, to newspaper and magazine columns claiming that a certain president-elect is gaslighting the American people – that it runs the risk of making Hamilton’s plot seem predictable. And yet, in this new staging, director Anthony Banks lends an air of unpredictable menace to proceedings.
Kara Tointon’s Bella is initially bright and airy, enjoying the genteel life of a Victorian wife whose husband showers her with affection and promises of theatre tickets. As she begins to doubt herself, Tointon brings the audience into Bella’s world completely. Is she really hiding trinkets and photographs without realising it? Is the maid laughing at her behind her back? Are the gas lights dimming of their own accord? Or is she, perhaps, succumbing to the same madness that led to her mother dying in an asylum?
It is clear from the outset that most of Bella’s paranoia is being engineered by her husband (except, perhaps, for the disdain from Charlotte Blackledge’s amusingly truculent maid). As Manningham, Rupert Young starts off as slightly drippy and underwhelming, but his ability to turn on a sixpence and become a monstrous husband, threatening his wife with incarceration if she cannot locate a mislaid bill, helps ratchet up the air of menace which pervades the production.
And yet in the first act, Young’s presence is felt more than it is seen, his character’s absence becoming the opportunity for Bella to receive a visit from Keith Allen’s mysterious Inspector Rough. As the gruff inspector recounts a tale of a decades-old murder and some mysterious missing treasure, Allen makes sure to imbue the exposition with a sense of mystery and doubt, as if he could possibly be an impostor who, like her husband, is manipulating Bella into believing a fantasy for his own ends. In contrast to Tointon’s clipped, stately Victorian delivery, Allen is colloquial, almost twenty-first century in tone. It is a contrast that shifts the play delightfully off-kilter, bringing an undercurrent of uncertainty as well as a liberal smattering of humour.
In keeping with this uncertainty, this sense of elements not being quite right, designer David Woodhead’s set, with its false perspectives, hidden doors and distorting mirror, sits claustrophobically within the blackness of the Waterside’s cavernous stage. Coupled with lighting designer Howard Hudson’s subtle cues, the atmospherics do not really require a couple of shocking additions more suited to horrors such as The Woman in Black, for there is enough to horrify from Manningham’s machinations alone. A far stronger presence in the second act than the first, Young clearly revels in playing the villainous role, making his final confrontation with Tointon’s Bella a delicious conclusion.
Indeed, it is Tointon who throughout makes this production feel so wholeheartedly watchable. In a script in which Bella could seem like a weak, manipulated woman, we instead see someone who begins to fight against the abuse to which she has been subjected for years. There may not be quite the social message that is present in, say, An Inspector Calls – a play with which this production Gaslight shares a fair degree of atmospherics – but this Victorian-set drama, written in 1938, is thrillingly contemporary.
Runs until 21 January 2017 | Image: Manuel Harlan