In recent years, the term ‘gaslighting’ has been used more and more, the word itself stemming from the ever-popular play ‘Gaslight’. The concept of gaslighting is simple but devastating – abusers manipulate their victims by psychological means into doubting their own sanity. Last year in The Archers on Radio 4, a storyline that heavily featured coercive control took centre stage and dominated headlines in the press. We seem to be acutely more aware of the incredibly damaging effect of emotional abuse (evident in recent law changes), so it is extraordinary to think that writer Patrick Hamilton’s most successful play, Gaslight, opened in 1938. I wonder what he would think of its long-standing heritage…
Set in London in 1871, we meet Bella (Kara Tointon), an upper-middle class woman who at first seems weak and tired of her life at home, and her domineering husband Jack Manningham (Rupert Young). As the play begins, they seem to have a fairly ‘standard’ Victorian life together - Jack promises trips to the theatre for his ‘child’ if she makes a bit more effort to play the good Victorian housewife. But as things unravel, we see a sharper side to Jack. He loses his temper when it seems Bella has, once again, moved various things around the house and lost them – a habit we and the servants of the house are told she has fallen in to regularly, although Bella can’t seem to remember ever doing so. As she collapses into despair, her husband leaves in a rage. But just five minutes later, a strange police detective called Rough (the delightful Keith Allen) demands an audience with Mrs Manningham, so he may reveal some ‘home truths’.
Tointon is effortlessly watchable in this production, and it is fun to see the layers she has created in her character. Rather than simply meek throughout, she is at turns, funny, childish, gleeful, jealous, full of fury and in the enjoyable last moments of the play, empowered. Her clipped and precise Victorian RP contrasts nicely with Keith Allen’s more rugged vocals as the amusing Detective Rough. Allen brings such fun to the role, whilst still maintaining an air of superiority that keeps the audience suspicious of his motives, and it’s clear he and Tointon particularly enjoy their scenes together. Rounding out the cast is the brilliant Helen Anderson as Elizabeth the housekeeper, and the delightful Charlotte Blackledge as the sassy and flirtacious maid Nancy. Anderson is a master at playing an audience and her scenes with Rupert Young’s darkly disturbing Mr Manningham are particularly enjoyable. Charlotte Blackledge, as Nancy, gets the majority of the laughs of the night, flouncing about with a sour look for her mistress and a lusty one for her master. It is clear director Anthony Banks has had lots of fun in the rehearsal room and the cast mesh beautifully.
The lighting design by Howard Hudson here almost seems to have a presence and a character all its own. From clever rain effects on the window, precisely placed lights to echo the moon outside, and the eponymous gaslight itself, much of the tension is garnered from this clever lighting. Coupled with David Woodhead’s forced perspective set, it creates a claustrophobic atmosphere and sucks the audience in perfectly. The accompanying music is occasionally intrusive, and the addition of some ghostly scare tactics seem somewhat unnecessary for what is still such a compelling play. A thoroughly exciting evening, with a great cast, Gaslight remains a pertinent piece.
Aylesbury Waterside Theatre
16th Jan – 21st Jan, 2017
Then continuing on tour.
© Carly Halse - Reviewed on Monday 16th January, 2017.