Gaslight

Patrick Hamilton

Ambassador Theatre Group, Smith and Grant Theatricals, Tulchin Bartler Productions, Moya Productions

Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield

From 20 February 2017 to 25 February 2017

Review by Velda Harris

Gaslight, written by English playwright Patrick Hamilton in 1938 is billed as a "psychological thriller" and has an excitingly convoluted plot.

A subdued Victorian wife is convinced by her authoritarian and manipulative husband that she is going mad just like her mother. He is actually driving her mad by persuading her that the footsteps she hears in the upstairs rooms and the inexplicable fading of the gaslights are in her imagination, not real. He also terrorises her by accusing her of losing or hiding important family items in unexpected places. She succumbs to his bullying and loses confidence in herself. So far so modern.

If the plot outline sounds melodramatic it is, but the writing of the piece dangles uncertainly between the quasi-comic tradition of nineteenth-century melodrama and mid-twentieth-century psychological realism, which Ibsen did so much better in the 1870s.

The inconsistent writing style creates problems for the actors. Should they play it with deep seriousness or submit to the laughs when they come? In this production, there is also uncertainty about the period setting, and an appropriately Victorian performance style for the actors.

As the confused wife, Kara Tointon’s movement is spikily abrupt and modern and the men in the play often throw off their greatcoats on to the back of a chair in the drawing room or balance their top hats on a convenient horizontal surface. This is simply not done in polite Victorian society.

I was interested to see how a stage version of the play (apparently popular with amdram groups) compared with the award-winning 1944 George Cukor film starring Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotton. John Van Bruten, who presumably made significant changes to the original text, provided a "Noirish" version full of subtlety and dramatic tension, which enabled Cukor to draw out convincing performances from his cast and create a murkily-lit atmosphere which was threatening and full of menace.

Sadly not the case in this production.

The large, diagonally presented set suggests a vast, decaying Victorian house but it is a bit of a surprise when the Inspector taps on a bookcase to discover a convenient hidey-hole in which to conceal himself. Where have we seen this before? How did he know where to tap? And, although there is a moment of ghostly shock horror in the first half, this elicited laughter not fear.

The audience welcomed moments that were farcical, like the revelation of a waiting policeman behind a closed door or the heroine knocking back a glass of whisky with unexpected enthusiasm, but, while such moments provide a welcome relief, they work against the dramatic tension of the narrative.

There are solid enough performances from the actors but little subtlety in the characterisation. An attempted seduction in the second half is clumsy and unconvincing. The exception to this Helen Anderson’s performance as the housekeeper, where the comedic possibilities of the role are well-realised but not allowed to detract from the prevailing mood.

The sad fact is that it is not a very good play and, while audiences will be intrigued by the gradual unfolding of the plot, there are better, more sophisticated examples of murder mysteries, psychological manipulation and ghostly emanations on TV and elsewhere which are familiar and more satisfying.