Gaslight was written in 1938 by Patrick Hamilton. Drawing inspiration from the Melodramas of Victorian theatre, it plays on the contrast of an innocent person being attacked by menace and evil. Being nearly 70 years old, the story is well known, however for those of you who don’t know the story, this review will contain spoilers of the plot.We open in the Manningham family home, where the play is set. The room is relatively well furnished and tended, though some decay appears in the corner. Bella Manningham (Kara Tointon) and Jack Manningham (Rupert Young) converse and it’s clear that the husband is a dominating force in the household. Not in the way that a traditional Victorian era husband would be the head of the family. More in that he domineers using subtle psycholgical and emotional abuse to render his wife docile.
With promises of gifts that she loves dearly he keeps her on his side, but then takes them away when she seemingly does something wrong. This in turn forces her into submission and as things go missing in the house, she also fears she’s losing her mind.
As her husband leaves for the evening, an unexpected visitor arrives. A mysterious ex policeman with a fantastical story set 20 years in the past. But what is the connection with Mr Manningham’s late night dalliances and a foul murder two decades ago?
My favourite part of Gaslight is the complexity of the clues. If we were to compare a typical Sherlock Holmes storyline, the clues would be generic that could be (and have been) adapted to the modern day. Dirt under nails, footprints, a bad alibi are all the kind of thing that Holmes would use to deduce the crime. However, Gaslight relies on an actual problem rooted solely in the Victorian era. A major clue that allows Rough (Keith Allen) to solve his case surrounds the pressure of the gas that powers the gaslights in the living room. This plot development can’t be used in any other time period. This means that Gaslight sets are stuck in the Victorian era. That’s perfectly good for us. It plays on our knowledge of Penny Dreadfuls and melodramas of the age. The dictionary definition of Gaslight is to “manipulate someone by psychological means into questioning their own sanity”. Something that certainly happens to Bella throughout the entire story. At one point even questioning the existence of her potential rescuer.
Rupert Young plays Jack Mannigham admirably. His part is quiet in the first part which lulls you into a false sense of security with him. Only the passive aggressive way he emotionally abuses his wife can give an underlying indication of his intent. Kara Tointon has been both acclaimed and panned for her performance as Bella Mannigham. It could have been misconstrued as hamming it up, but from what I could see she’s a woman on the edge of sanity, close to being sectioned. She’s reckless, emotional and needs constant reassurance. Her accent is time period and has an air of middle to upper class to it. I was trying to place the accent as one I recognised. The closest I could think of was Margaret Thatcher. It was less pronounced, but there nontheless.
Arguably Keith Allen stole the show as Detective Rough (retired). His presence from the first moment filled the room to that point that I almost clapped like they did on 1960’s American sitcoms. His strong role was injected with some wonderful humour such as his “medicinal” whiskey. Also when he had explained his theories to Bella (and it had become glaringly obvious to the audience), upon seeing her confusion he asked “Do you see what I’m getting at?” A desperate attempt to bring the distraught Bella to the real world as her perfect life collapsed.
There was also a superb performance by Charlotte Blackledge as Nancy the Maid. From her eye rolls, to her sarcastic banter and slamming of doors. She shone through as another humorous intervention in the story. Nancy shows her true colours as a greedy gold digger trying to snatch Jack away from Bella while bringing his wife down. Being the understudy for Bella, I would really like to see how she played that role.
I did feel that the deceased woman could have been utilised much more, or at least explained clearer. Was she a ghost? A hallucination? A guilty memory? She’s seen in the mirror twice and actually is in the room towards the end, though only seen by Jack. I felt she was underused though and seems nothing more than a side thought to bulk the story of the 20 year old murder. If she is a ghost, it brings a pang of supernatural to an otherwise fully grounded thriller. I feel she’s a guilty memory of Jack Manningham. If she were a hallucination, then arguably it would be Bella seeing her. The same if it were a ghost. However, the appearance of her makes you jump and that bears a closer resemblance to the supernatural element.
Gaslight is a wonderful play with a heady mix of anger, greed, humour and horror. It’s played on a problem that gaslight users of the era had as a clue. It also combined it with it’s slang meaning of psychological abuse. Gaslight shows the lengths that people will go to in order to be rich and also how strong a supposedly fragile person can be. It was thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish.