Hot on the heels of the superb Brave New World comes another well-known British work of the 1930s which has completely passed me by. I’d never seen the play of Gaslight, nor any of the film adaptations; my parents used fondly to recall Fanny by Gaslight but that’s another thing entirely. Patrick Hamilton, the author, was also responsible for the play Rope, famously adapted for the memorable Hitchcock film. Although written in 1938, Gaslight is set in 1880, and so I was expecting a spooky Victorian psychological thriller with a touch of melodrama thrown in – and to a large extent, that’s precisely what the production delivers.
Jack and Bella Manningham lead a rather gloomy and austere life in a gloomy and austere house in London. She is obviously a nervous wreck, desperate to please her husband and play the role of the good Victorian wife; he is a controlling, ruthless, unkind Victorian husband, languishing at home by day and absent who knows where in the evening. And the key to the success of this play is not knowing anything more about it in advance, so that’s all the plot summary you’re getting.
There’s a huge amount to admire and enjoy in this production. William Dudley’s set is amazing, offering so many opportunities to accentuate Bella’s paranoia, including opaque walls that let you see what’s happening in the next room, and a very surprising extension that takes your breath away. At portentous moments, mysterious music will just gently seep its way into your consciousness to add to the general eeriness. This is all strongly juxtaposed with the realism of the costumes and props; I appreciated the scrupulous attention to detail here, I especially liked the Victorian bone china tea set, and the very clear sound effects from the street outside – you could almost smell the horses.
However – and for me it’s quite a big however – I found this an extremely curious play. In fact, it’s almost two plays dovetailed in together. There’s the classic dark thriller, where a husband mistreats his wife with psychological game-playing; and there’s an almost farcical comedy struggling to get out, based on the character of the police inspector Rough, a self-confessed dandy whom you suspect could just as easily turn into Clouseau as Holmes. Thanks to good old Youtube, I’ve had a quick flick through the film and see that the characterisation of Rough there is also somewhat larger than life. In this production he is played by Paul Hunter, an actor and director of immense talent and experience, so I am completely certain that this isn’t a case of miscasting or accidentally getting it wrong.
But whereas the contrast of fantasy and realism works very well with the set and effects, I found the difference of characterisation of the inspector sat ill-at-ease with everything and everyone else. I just didn’t find him remotely believable. I didn’t get a sense that he was in the same period as the other characters – he felt too modern, too unconventional. Mrs Chrisparkle and I both agreed that the scenes between Jack and Bella were superb; a really fantastic study of the chilling domination of one person over another. We also loved the interaction between both characters and their servants, and the unexpected way in which the servants’ relevance in the story develops. But as for the inspector? We just didn’t get it, I’m afraid. In the interval, we both thought it was going the way of An Inspector Calls – apparently J B Priestley was a great admirer of Patrick Hamilton’s work – and Gaslight predates Inspector by seven years, so it would be Hamilton influencing Priestley and not the other way round. But no – whilst there may be all sorts of psychological games going on, Inspector Rough is indeed proper flesh and blood. Yes, at times he makes you laugh, and you might well feel that a laugh nicely breaks up the heavy atmosphere; but all I can say is that the characterisation wasn’t to my taste, and that’s not Mr Hunter’s fault – it’s a disconnect between me and the play.
Tara Fitzgerald is simply brilliant as Bella, conveying immaculately her mental fragility, her desire to be loved, her awkwardness with the servants, and her fighting spirit too. There’s an extremely moving moment when she discovers a hidden letter, which really moved me to tears. I enjoyed how she portrayed the character opening up to the police inspector as if he were a kind of therapist – it’s an all-round amazing performance. Jonathan Firth is also superb as the calculating and cruel Jack, really using the pace and control of his voice both to dominate and to lull Bella into a false sense of security. It’s a beautifully understated characterisation of evil – it wouldn’t surprise me if he committed any appalling act he wanted.
Alexandra Guelff takes on the role of Nancy the maid with great gusto, subtly sneering at her mistress and becoming more challenging – and forward – as the character grows in confidence. Veronica Roberts gives great support as Elizabeth, particularly in the delightfully suspenseful scene where Jack goes in and out of his dressing room. And Paul Hunter is very funny and very charismatic as Rough, a character that I just feel deserves to be in a different play.
The suspense lasts right until the very end and it’s an extremely rewarding, as well as thoroughly moral, climax. It was a pleasure to see the Royal so full for a Wednesday evening, and I’m sure this is going to do great business. I just think it’s a very strange play!