Tuesday 20th September 2022 at Harrogate Theatre.
Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight is a classic 1930’s stage thriller. Set in 1880, the play follows a classically ill at ease Victorian wife and her classically dismissive Victorian husband as the pair navigate what appears to be her swift mental deterioration.
Faye Weerasinghe is a likeable but very highly strung Mrs Manningham, who seems to spend her days pleading for forgiveness or tearing her hair out as the various mysteries of the household show themselves. Robin Simpson is an equally unlikeable, domineering type as Mr Manningham, a man who seems to spend his days sniping at his wife and, well, pulling his hair out over the mysteries of the household. There are instant echoes of Gilman’s famous story The Yellow Wallpaper, James’ governess in The Turn of the Screw and Charlotte Brontë’s Bertha up in the attic as we too are encouraged to doubt what we hear and see. Mad women, eh? Always fine fodder for a thriller.
Cue the inevitable inspector, in this case Ian Kirkby’s Rough who arrives complete with a comfort and ease which can surely reassure any near-hysterical Victorian. This week in rep theatre sees Katy Dean transformed from gung-ho hostess Beverley in Abigail’s Party to domestic service as she plays the young and improper maid, Nancy. Janine Mellor’s Elizabeth is a more mature, uptight force as senior housemaid or some such, neatly reminding us of what’s to be expected in this day and age: the naughty maid and the nice maid each have their own part to play, naturally.
With the wheels in motion, it quickly becomes apparent that Gaslight is very much a product of its time, with melodramatic repetitions of lines and comic relief which at times is only a whisper away from gentle knee-slapping and a wink and a nudge. This is the stuff that Victoria Wood was channeling so well in those parodies… All this provides some good fun I think, but the dated nature of it does somewhat dampen the opportunities to clutch us by the throat. By modern standards, this thriller is more of a gentle stroll than a gripping ride, particularly as the mysterious threads become quite visible early on; a few more twists and turns before the reveals wouldn’t go amiss.
That said, the best of stage thriller designs are all here: the imposing music (sound design: Marcus Hutton) on entrance, the ominous underscoring and the constantly shifting brightness of lights (lighting design: Stephanie Newell) all play their role very nicely – with the latter being pretty crucial to proceedings, as suggested by the play’s title. And all the while, Geoff Gilder’s production design keeps us firmly and richly rooted in the realm of 1880’s London.
Ben Roddy’s direction plays to the genre and the creative team have launched a great illusion of Victorian domesticity. In turn, the cast have delivered on the promise of a 1930’s classic thriller, but I just can’t shake the sense that Gaslight, for all its virtues and its remarkable relevance in today’s world, remains just a little too tame and too quick to reveal its trajectory.
Gaslight plays Harrogate Theatre as part of the Rep Season until September 24th – you can find more information and tickets here.