Gaslight has stood the test of time in the canon of British theatre. It’s never sustained the runs of a thriller such as The Mousetrap, but in 1938 Patrick Hamilton struck a chord with audiences who love a mix of crime, psychology and marital strife. The Playground Theatre’s revival is apposite in an age when the methods to which it gave its name are common practice; when the manipulation of people through lies, deceits and the repeated telling of falsehoods increasingly becomes the norm.
A chance to see an enduring classic.
This story, however, is rooted in what might appear to the neighbours as the unexceptional marriage of upper middle class Jack and Bella Manningham (Jordan Wallace and Jemima Murphy). Bella’s mother had been consigned to a lunatic asylum and Jack, through a series of tricks and deceptions, tries to convince his wife that she is heading in the same direction. His drip-feeding of incidents that cause her to doubt her memory and question her actions, combined with his threatening words make her increasingly nervous and frightened. Each night he leaves the house for a few hours. Not long after the lights in the house always dim as the gas pressure goes down and she hears footsteps in the attic. Detective Rough (Joe Mcardle) seizes upon Jack’s absence to visit Mrs Manningham. He reveals the history of the house and the secrets of her husband’s shady past. Together they bring about his demise, Bella has her revenge and justice is done.
Hamilton placed the action in 1880 and Kate Halsted’s set conveys the period with some well-chosen pieces of furniture that create a Victorian drawing room that hints at also being an office. Gregory Jordan delivers the chilling effects of the lights going up and down and Herbert Homer Warbeck further haunts the place with a rumbling soundscape. These elements work well together, but it is in the casting and direction of roles by Imy Wyatt Corner that some cracks appear.
Starting at the bottom of this hierarchical household, Grace Howard as Nancy coyly adopts a demeanour that is inappropriately coquettish for a lowly maid but who revels in it because she knows the master finds her alluring. It’s in stark contrast to the formal behaviour of Elizabeth, the housekeeper, whom Rebecca Ashley imbues with a traditional subservience combined with a commanding air. Murphy makes Mrs Manningham remarkably stoical; nervous and on edge, but with something of a stiff upper lip and while her anxiety increases as the pressures builds up she never seems to let out the inner tension that a moment of weeping might relieve.
Other issues apply to the men, both of whom appear far too young for their roles. Wallace, in his shiny man-about-town suit looks out of place and feels ill at ease. He plays the nasty very well, but lacks the underlying menacing evil. His modern London accent clashes with the more archaic, formal prose of the script and the habit of clicking his fingers is equally too laddish. Had the whole production been updated to the present day it might all have worked, but here it simply jars. For a retired detective, Mcardle looks as though he has just joined the force. His performance is light-hearted and often amusing. He’s fun to watch and he clearly enjoys stealing the show. There is certainly nothing of the ponderous Mr Plod about him but neither is there the maturity or gravitas that might be expected under the circumstances.
The production is certainly damaged by the juxtaposition of characters who belong in different ages and who subsequently make it less creepy and chilling than it might otherwise be, but for newcomers to Gaslight it's a chance to see an enduring classic.