New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 10th January, 2017
Written in 1938, Patrick Hamilton’s taut thriller is a pastiche of Victorian melodrama: an innocent girl is persecuted by an evil man but the intervention of a hero saves her from doom and thwarts the evil-doer’s plot…
Kara Tointon is a picture of innocence as the vulnerable Bella, believing herself to be going around the twist. She is child-like, infantilised by her hubby who manipulates her every mood. Tointon endears herself to us, keeping on the right side of pathetic and making the heightened dialogue sound natural. As her bullying husband, Jack, Rupert Young domineers, exuding evil. What begins as a study in mental cruelty swiftly becomes something even darker as the true nature of the man Bella married is brought to light.
It’s not all darkness: the unexpected arrival of Bella’s saviour in the form of former detective Rough (Keith Allen) brings humour and more than a touch of levity to proceedings. Of course, this accentuates the moments of tension and suspense by contrast. Rough is a breath of fresh air to Bella’s stuffy, shut-in existence, and Allen plays him with relish in a funny and yet compelling portrayal. There is also humour in the roles of the maidservants. Charlotte Blackledge’s Nancy is cheeky to the point of impudence, while Helen Anderson’s Elizabeth is a masterclass in comic playing, doing so much with a simple “Yes, Miss” or “No, Miss”. Wonderful stuff.
David Woodhead’s set design is to be savoured, capturing the oppression of Bella’s existence with a looming ceiling and dark panelling. The set is enhanced by Howard Hudson’s lighting, which renders the action almost sepia at times, like the fading portraits on the walls, and, of course, the all-important gaslight that is so crucial to the plot. The sound design, by Ben and Max Ringham, augments the tension with dissonance, while Anthony Banks’s direction winds up the suspense like a watch spring. Banks reins in the melodramatic excesses to keep the behaviour credible for a modern audience and this high-quality production proves this creaky old drama still has power to thrill.
You can tell it’s working when the villain is booed during his curtain call!