Gas Light or Gaslight was written in 1938 by Hassocks-born Patrick Hamilton. Written during a dark period in his life, Hamilton’s thriller set in London in the 1880s is a dark tale of a marriage based on deceit and trickery, and a husband committed to driving his wife insane in order to steal from her. Six years prior to the play Hamilton was hit by a drunk driver and dragged through the streets of London, leaving him with a limp, a paralysed arm, and a disfigured face. Two years later, Hamilton’s mother committed suicide.
In the 1960s writers began denominalising the play’s title and using it as a verb. Gaslighting, in this context, is a colloquialism that loosely means to manipulate a person or a group of people in a way similar to the way the protagonist of the play (Bella Manningham) is manipulated.
Bella suffers from what she believes are the early stages of insanity, a disease from which her mother died. Her husband, Jack, struggles to help her, and spends his evenings out on the town in order to cope. Or so he makes her believe.
Bella evidently misplaces items from time to time, some of which are gifts from her husband. Because she cannot remember moving or misplacing these items, she thinks she is going crazy. It becomes clear, however, that her husband is behind these petty inconsistencies in order to slowly drive her insane and torture her into believing they are her fault. But what of the dimming lights and footsteps heard within the house while her husband is away? Are these simply a figment of her delusional mind?
Then late one evening, a stranger comes to the house while Jack is out and explains he is there to help Mrs. Manningham. Who is this man and what secrets does he know? Why is Jack tormenting his wife? Is Bella truly going mad? The mysteries of the Manningham home are soon revealed in this taut, psychological chiller produced by Phil&Ben Productions.
On the surface it’s a Victorian potboiler, but it is uncannily insightful and accurate in its depiction of an abusive relationship and Ben Roddy’s faithful direction proves that even a popular old warhorse can still keep modern audiences entertained in an old-fashioned way. It is not as unnerving as it could be and some of the musical choices seem anachronistic (Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack to the 1962 version of Cape Fear was definitely spotted) however Roddy keeps the action moving at a fast pace – even the rather ponderous first act is over before you know it – and he makes sure the cast keep their characters real without slipping into melodrama. I did feel the occasional bursts of incidental music were slightly unnecessary and actually relieved the tension rather than endorsed it.
Robin Simpson is outstanding as the psychopathic Jack Manningham not overplaying the sinister aspect of the role but often hiding his madness and malevolence under the metaphoric cloak of a middle-aged grump and Lucy-Jane Quinlan follows her scene-stealing appearance in Absent Friends with another measured and studied performance as Bella Manningham maintaining the neurotic and needy element of the role throughout.
Ian Kirkby is simply wonderful as the aforementioned stranger coping amicably with an unnecessarily overlong exposition, which would benefit from cutting and there is excellent support from Janine Mellor as Elizabeth and in particular, Katy Dean, as the saucy and pouting parlour maid Nancy.
Does the world need another production of Gaslight? Who knows. It certainly doesn’t offer a demanding evening at the theatre but thanks to such a well-judged and beautiful-looking production (Geoff Gilder – Designer), its escapism should have widespread appeal to fans of this particular genre. Phil&Ben Productions return next week to the Devonshire Park with John Godber’s touching and bitter-sweet comedy, Men of the World.
Reviewer: Patric Kearns