New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Friday 20th September, 2013
Patrick Hamilton’s taut thriller is set in the Victorian home of Mr and Mrs Manningham, shown here in a detailed set by designer Michael Holt – a collection of furniture, potted plants and props that evoke the period perfectly. Hamilton uses some of the features of Victorian melodrama in his tale but director Sarah Punshon does not overplay them. We have a villain, who sports a black top hat and cloak – he even has facial hair, a sure sign of villainy according to the convention, but Brendan Hughes’s Manningham stops short of twirling his moustache. The victim is his neurotic wife Bella, an excellent Alix Dunmore who pitches the poor woman’s fragility just right; we never get the sense that she has a choice, that she should stand up to her bullying monster of a husband, such is the credibility she brings to the role.
There is music too, as you’d expect in a melodrama, but James Earl-Davis’s sound design keeps it subtle. Atonal notes play on an almost subliminal level, cranking the tension. The effect is very chilling.
There is strong support from Joanna Bacon and Hannah Lee as the housemaids, one fretful, the other chirpy, again bringing truth to character parts. The whole tone of the piece is utterly believable, thanks to the performance style and also in no small part to the venue itself. In-the-round means that the audience is not only the fourth wall of the Manninghams’ living room but the first, second and third walls as well. This permits an intimacy and a naturalistic approach even to the more sensational aspects of the plot and dialogue.
John Cording’s Ex-Detective Rough almost steals the show, generating warmth and a quiet urgency as he makes his moves to solve an old case. The scenes between him and Alix Dunmore are superbly done, as he entrances her (and us) with exposition of the crime and convinces her to go along with his plan to bring a murderer to justice.
Brendan Hughes is also pitch-perfect, bringing nuance to what could easily be a two-dimensional role. We almost fall for his manipulations at the start and we see the power he has over his vulnerable wife. That the melodramatic aspects are subdued makes him a more chilling baddie and his machinations more plausible psychologically. I was interested to read in the programme that Manningham’s method of mental abuse has been given the name ‘gaslighting’ after this play.
An absorbing production of a thriller that actually thrills, Gaslight stands the test of time, serving as a reminder of the genius of this too-often overlooked playwright.