Matt Magill is thoroughly spooked by the nerve-shredding play based on Susan Hill's dark novelWritten by Matthew Magill on 26th May 2017
Review: ‘Gaslight’ at the New Alexandra Theatre
Culture critic Madeleine Bourne is impressed by Gaslight, a psychological thriller that both unsettles and delights
The audience are seated. The lights have slowly dimmed. The chatter of laughter falls away to an anticipating murmur. I am positively terrified as to how scarily thrilling this psychological thriller is going to be; I’m a little jumpy when it comes to horror. As the curtains draw back at the New Alexandra Theatre on opening night, we are met with a scene of a respectable Victorian household - the kind of furnishings that herald a bygone age of wealth, paintings of ancestors on the walls and an ornate fireplace, with the warmth of logs burning, indicate the home of a happily married couple. However, something is askew.
The play is packaged up as a psychological thriller, so naturally the skeptical eyes of myself and undoubtedly the rest of the audience are drawn towards two images on stage. Flickering eerily as a token of warning for what’s to come, above the fireplace stands two gaslights. Sat on a chair, albeit nervously, sits Bella Manningham (Kara Tointon) opposite her lounging, perfectly at ease, self-assured husband Jack Manningham (Rupert Young) who is reading the evening’s newspaper.
“The play is packaged up as a psychological thriller
Before even a word is uttered, the audience is on Bella’s team. We already do not like her husband; if we’re honest, something about him even terrifies us as well. Our skepticism is proven worthy when Bella rushes to help a maid that is bringing in the dinner. Mr. Manningham proceeds to flirt with the maid in order to teach Bella a lesson that their servants are not ‘equals’. At this point, we as an audience are pretty much ready to give Jack Manningham a rather massive, metaphorical, slap in the face.
Next, Jack hooks Bella in with a proposition to take her to the theatre, something that absolutely delights her. A glance over to the piano, and he suddenly realizes that their gilded photograph is missing. Someone has displaced it. Jack first says with sorrow that Bella really needs to start admitting why and where she keeps hiding objects around the house. When Bella wholeheartedly protests that she has nothing to do with such foolery, we begin to see the cold-heartedness to Mr. Manningham’s character. There is a true menace to his voice when he threatens Bella with admission to a mental hospital if she doesn’t stop such behaviour - he then storms out of the house for a night on the town, leaving Bella alone, frightened, shaken up and questioning her very sanity. I know, heavy stuff.
Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 Victorian thriller has been played out on both stage and screen, and in fact coined the term ‘gaslighting’: a form of psychological abuse whereby the victim is made to doubt their own sanity. Gaslight has been played out on different ends of the theatrical spectrum - in 2015, the play was revived for the Royal and Derngate theatre complex in Northampton. The show featured special effects such as video projections, moving doors and floors to heighten the anxiety of the performance. But 2017’s revival didn’t need such hi-tech wizardry to be successful, oh no.
“Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 Victorian thriller... coined the term Gaslighting
Hamilton once described his play as a pastiche - but the way today’s revival of the thriller skirts over, dodges around and takes a tiny skip over melodrama, teasing the audience with a heightened performance full of energy, but retains sincerity so as not to reach the absurdity that sometimes melodrama can create, means that director Anthony Banks’ production doesn’t need the use of complex sets. We never leave the sitting room of the Manningham household; the only glimpse of a world outside the room is when the door to the sitting room opens, and we can see down a darkened passage to the rest of the house. This only heightens Bella’s anxiety and impossible position; we too feel trapped. I can tell you - it’s definitely not a nice feeling. The main technical effect used is just a change of lighting. The gaslights flicker up and down throughout, unnerving the steeliest of theatre goers. A sudden moment of a multitude of flashing lights on the empty stage ramps up the tension to a near hysterical degree. We don’t need a melodramatic light show for the sake of it in this production of Gaslight. All we need is the playwright’s words and the sincerity of the actors’ delivery.
Having said that, there was a directorial decision which sadly took away from the brilliance of the production. The ghost of a murdered woman appears now and again throughout; something that seemed as if it was intended to shock the audience, but ended up appearing rather comical. The juxtaposition between the psychological nature of Bella’s abuse, something that is gravely serious and believable to this day, and the popping up of a ghostly figure just jarred. The actors’ talk of the ghost and a sinister murder that happened 20 years prior to the play’s setting was enough to really freak us out. We didn’t need a visual representation of something that was already ghastly enough in our own imaginations; imagination is powerful and seeing the ghost dumbed down that power.
“We believed Kara Tointon's character, we felt her pain, and we absolutely flipping loved her by the end.
But moaning aside, the real brilliance of Gaslight is unearthed in the joy of the actors’ craft, particularly in the appearance of a retired detective (Keith Allen), whose role is to help Bella uncover the true identity of her controlling husband, and the life that Kara Tointon breathes into Bella’s pale, actually quite lifeless character. Both very complex roles to fill, all we needed was their craft to keep us immersed in the performance. Keith Allen, veteran actor, star of Trainspotting and more recently, Eddie the Eagle, pops up almost magically like a little leprechaun, yet still finds truth and an earnest nature in a seemingly impossible role. The deadpan nature of his comedic tone made him believable: we overlooked the flaws in Hamilton’s tale due to Allen’s skill at dealing with such a farcical character. As for the leading lady, Kara Tointon, star of Eastenders, winner of Strictly Come Dancing and a plethora of West End gigs, instead of finding Bella insufferable and overdramatic, we cheered her along throughout, due to Kara’s sensitive take on a character that could quite easily slip into melodrama. We believed her character, we felt her pain and we absolutely flipping loved her by the end.
As the show ended, the cast came back on stage to a sea of applause. Heading up to the bar for a post-show drink, I caught up with the cast for a chat. Unbeknown to myself that they would be there, I was totally unprepared and just a little bit, well a lot, flustered. Chatting to Kara, I admitted that I totally felt out of my depth amongst the cast and professional journalists. She in turn gave me a warm smile and said ‘I feel totally the same way. We only rehearsed this over Christmas and I don’t feel quite ready to be showing it yet.’ She was even nice enough to grab a quick selfie with a very unprofessional student journalist and her friend. Going by the stellar performance the cast gave on opening night, you need to get your hands on some tickets, because it sounds like they have a whole lot more, if that’s even possible, to pull out of their theatrical bag.
Gaslight runs at the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham until Saturday 14th of January. More information can be found here - http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/gaslight/new-alexandra-theatre-birmingham/#overview_tab.