★★★|In an elegant townhouse in Victorian London, Bella Manningham is slowly losing her mind. Pictures keep disappearing, trinkets seem to move from place to place and items go missing without explanation. Add to that the mysterious sounds from the top floor of the house and the dimming of the gas lamps and Bella’s sanity is called into question. But what is the secret history lurking in the walls of the home and just who is the stranger who calls unannounced at her home one evening? Why does Bella’s husband, Jack, keep reminding her of her mother’s insanity and what is the connection for all of them to a 20 year old unsolved murder?
Patrick Hamilton’s play is a direct descendant of the Victorian melodramas that it portrays. Continuing the themes of innocence menaced by something darker, the plays script, setting and overall feeling is one of claustrophobia and oppression. Given that the play is set in a single room and given that it is, essentially, a three hander, the play has to rely heavily on the performances of the actors to carry it through. Kara Tointon’s portrayal of Bella was fine, although the increasing histrionics started to grate a little with the progression of the story. Rupert Young’s turn as Jack Manningham was well rounded, initially quite charming and alluring, but subsequently developing his character to include an uneasy undertone. But it was Keith Allen’s performance as the mysterious visitor which stood out the most, performing his stern and determined character with his tongue just slightly in his cheek, lightening what is otherwise quite a bleak drama with a soupcon of humour and playing to his strengths.
The stage set is a detailed drawing room, which has a forced perspective and increases the claustrophobic feel of the piece, which is enhanced further by some atmospheric lighting. The productions sound design was nothing more than functional and the sound in the theatre allowed for every word to be heard clearly, which is essential with such a wordy script.
As a whole, the piece was a fairly mixed bag. The first act nicely established the characters from the outset and drew the audience in as to the mystery, hinting at the possibility of the plot twists which may come, and ending the first act, story-wise, on a decent cliff-hanger. The second act seemed to lose its way slightly, becoming a little muddled and failing to deliver on the anticipated plot twists, instead, providing a rather straight narrative and one which is not entirely unpredictable. There are a couple of cattle prod scares which highlight the supernatural element of the story, although in a rather clumsy and unnecessary way, and this is an element which is never really followed through.
Gaslight appears, from the outside, to be mix of The Woman In Black and An Inspector Calls, but in reality is a straight Victorian melodrama, portraying a relatively linear narrative with a socially aware undercurrent addressing the treatment of Victorian women and the discrepancies in equality faced by them. Overall, it is a fairly engaging but lightweight mystery / thriller worthy of a watch and which has an ultimately satisfying ending.
Gaslight is currently at Sheffield Theatres (www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk) until the 25th February 2017 before heading to Richmond and Cardiff.