Writer: Patrick Hamilton
Director: Anthony Banks
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
It must be very confusing to be Mrs Manningham. Things happen that she can’t explain, trinkets going missing and then reappearing in her sewing box. Her husband is losing patience with her lapses of memory. The maid laughs at her behind her back. And why do the gaslights in their home dim ominously each evening while her husband is out of the house as if there is a lack of pressure yet no other lamp burns? Can she really hear someone move around on the top floor, the floor that is permanently locked? Her mother died insane and madness is hereditary, isn’t it?
And why has a retired policeman called out of the blue and started talking about a 20-year-old cold case?
Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight is the archetypal psychological thriller. It is immediately clear that Mr Manningham is psychologically abusing his wife, alternately ignoring her and offering her rewards only to withdraw them and generally doing all he can to undermine her. At the outset, it is not at all clear why he should behave in this way; as the play progresses and one begins to see his motivation, his actions become ever more chilling. Yet his wife remains loyal and devoted, almost pathetically keen to please and apparently blind to his obvious (to the disinterested observer) cruelty.
While Rupert Young’s Jack Manningham is perhaps underplayed in the first half, after the interval he becomes frighteningly intense and scarily unpredictable as the air of threat increases. His moods swing ever more widely as he begins to suspect that something is now happening that is beyond even his control. Kara Tointon’s Bella is utterly believable as the put-upon wife, continuously doubting her own senses and sanity and trying to keep house and home together while blaming herself for all the shortcomings in their marriage. Helen Anderson’s housekeeper provides solid support to her mistress; she displays common sense and is the epitome of the efficient and loyal servant unlike the scheming Nancy, the maid. Charlotte Blackledge plays Nancy taking sneering cunning to new heights.
But it is Keith Allen’s Rough, the eccentric retired policeman, who fills the stage whenever he appears. While he is clearly on a mission to solve his cold case, his eccentricities also bring some welcome levity to proceedings – offering medicine that turns out to be whisky, for example. But he never allows us to lose sight of the serious underpinning of his character and motivations.
David Woodhead’s set is itself disquieting, at first sight a beautifully detailed Victorian drawing-room, but as one looks on for more than a few seconds one notices the weird perspective making the whole appear claustrophobic, exactly the impression Bella must have of a room, and indeed home, that acts like a prison. It supports the fact that much is implied – the cruellest actions of the husband are only alluded to but still carry considerable weight in the minds of both his wife and the audience. And there are some stock shockers that make the audience gasp out loud.
Anthony Banks’ surefooted direction ensures that the pace and atmosphere never flag. The lighting design of Howard Hudson heightens the premise that the gaslights dim and brighten as action takes place offstage, moving between harsh monochromatic lighting and the warmth of gaslight. The eerie atmosphere is completed by a subtle yet unnerving soundscape, courtesy of Ben and Max Ringham.
One might expect that a play set in Victorian times and written in 1938 might appear dated today. However, recent news items concerning psychological abuse and the 2015 law in which abusive and coercive behaviour became an offence imbue the play with a somewhat chilling contemporary resonance, a resonance in which partners can even now feel trapped and still need the kindly intervention of others to escape. Just the scenery is different.
Yes, Gaslight still has it. And it is well worth taking the time out to catch it as it continues on tour.
Runs until 14 January 2017 | Image: Manuel Harlan