Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton
Review by Steve Williams
Gaslight, albeit written in 1938, is the epitome of the Victorian melodrama. There is the evil villain, the downtrodden spouse, the interesting characters below stairs and the intriguing and slightly irascible stranger.
When the curtain opened, we were presented with the archetypal Victorian drawing room, complete with a multitude of paintings and the obligatory chaise-longue. The set was brilliantly designed by Richard Gissing and gave us everything you would expect from a Victorian drawing room replete with alcoves, rooms off and a cast-iron fireplace and decorative mantelpiece (I will come back to the set later). The ambiance was further enhanced by Jackson Gleeson and Lauren Flynn’s lighting design and I particularly liked the ‘gas’ wall lights; very effectively managed and, as you will have guessed from the name of the play, an integral part of the plot.
The premise of the play is that Jack Manningham (Robert Chambers) has a dark and terrible past that he must keep secret in order to achieve his aim. His wife Bella (Laura Gamble) has become something of an inconvenience, so Jack has set out to drive her insane by making her think that she keeps moving things, hiding them and forgetting that she’s done it; his intention being to get her out of the way and have her committed to an asylum.
His desire to convince her that she is ‘losing her mind’ is helped in no small part by the fortuitous and seemingly unexplainable dimming of the aforementioned gas lights while he goes about his nefarious activities on the top floor. His dastardly plan is finally frustrated by the mysterious stranger who turns out to be a retired police detective, Rough (Stevie Hughes).
As Jack Manningham, Robert Chambers gave us everything we would expect from our villain. He was in turns charming, evasive, manipulative, conniving and a downright cad. My only minor observation was that I would have liked a greater variation in his delivery when he was flirting with the young maid Nancy (Naomi Cunningham) in front of Bella. Otherwise, Robert gave an exceptional performance and the tension he created towards the end of the play when you felt he was going to lash out physically at Bella was beautifully handled.
Laura Gamble as Bella was superb and acted as the perfect foil both for her manipulative husband and detective Rough. It would be so easy to overplay her mental instability and make her out to be a crazed, wailing mad woman, but Laura kept her character firmly in check and presented Bella as a troubled, anxious but intelligent woman whose mixture of relief and anger at finding out about her husband’s duplicity was a master class in controlled acting.
Enter the Victorian detective Rough…
Stevie’s characterisation was arguably the finest performance I have seen from this fine actor. He got the mix of capable, good-humoured, old-fashioned detective following a hunch absolutely down to a tee. His asides, harrumphs and inappropriately timed quips added the perfect blend of light relief.
Karen O’Neill was the sympathetic but slightly aloof maid Elizabeth and she gave us just the right combination of dutiful servant when the master was around and sympathetic mother hen to Bella when he was not. One minor quibble (which may have been a directorial decision) was her lack of movement when Jack entered the room where the detective was hiding. She seemed to have been left frozen in place while Jack was off stage. It was a necessarily long pause as the actor had a costume change, but to my mind it would have been better and added to the overall tension of the moment if she had anxiously paced the room anticipating the seemingly inevitable discovery of Rough – which nonetheless never came.
Naomi Cunningham played the saucy maid, Nancy. Her off-hand attitude towards Bella was wonderfully contrasted with her flirtatious advances toward Jack. Her disappointment when Jack discovered that she had previous paramours perfectly displayed her youthful petulance.
I previously mentioned the setting and here I must just mention my one major gripe with this production. While Jack may have returned to the house in search of the hidden jewels, he was a well-to-do man of property (he had also bought the house next door after all) so it rather spoilt the illusion to see the badly papered walls. The set is as important to the play as the actors and the script and it is such a shame when a theatre that has such high standards in all other areas is let down by such a needless lack of attention to detail. The same goes for the picture that Bella removes from the wall. We were presented with the back of the picture which was so obviously modern. Again a simple piece of masking tape around the edges would have concealed all the modern fittings.
Costumes and props added an authentic feel to the production. The sound, designed by Lauren Flynn, was, for the most part, very well judged. I did find, however, the background music in the third act was too prominent and distracting. I know it is a Victorian melodrama and I know it was designed to add tension but, in my opinion, it needed to be more subtle.
One final irritation was the programme. I am sure I can’t be the only person who found it difficult to read. With programmes, I stick to the old adage that less is more.
Colleen Batson should take great comfort from, and should be rightly proud of her production. She handled a particularly difficult genre with aplomb and I for one had a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
Now, I am off to the loft to search for the jewels that I am sure must be hidden there somewhere…