New Vic Theatre Company
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme
Gaslight has been a solid, popular choice for amateur groups for several years—it was the first production I reviewed as a cub reporter on a daily evening paper—but the play doesn't seem to have the same appeal for professional companies, if the small number of reviews on the British Theatre Guide web site is anything to go by.
That appears strange bearing in mind that Patrick Hamilton's Victorian thriller has a small cast, is well plotted and calls for good contributions from the backstage crew.
Admittedly, some of the script is a little bit twee and you don't need to be Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple to work out some of the revelations.
But in the right hands Gaslight is a powerful, tension-filled study in fear and the New Vic seems to have chosen well in getting Sarah Punshon to direct.
Ms Punshon delivers in some ways an understated version of Gaslight which has none of the stereotypical features which used to categorise Victoria melodramas.
Some of the characters such as the retired police inspector and the two servants could quite easily turn into parodies. But there's no trace of caricatures here: actors put their own stamp on their parts as well as bringing out the subtleties and humour in Hamilton's script.
Gaslight is centred on Jack and Bella Manningham, a couple who have been married for seven years. But in the past six months Bella has shown signs of madness, rather like her late mother.
Her husband has driven her to the point of insanity, although his motive is not immediately apparent. The unexpected arrival of the mysterious, whisky-loving former police detective Rough, who's reinvestigating a case which he was unable to solve, leads to discoveries about Manningham's past and his reason for buying the couple's current home.
Alix Dunmore is especially striking as Bella Manningham. She superbly goes through a whole range of emotions, including elation when her husband promises to take her to the theatre, doubt as to whether she is going insane and dread as her predicament gets increasingly worse.
Brendan Hughes is suave and dashing as Jack yet scheming and controlling as he manipulates her, using mental cruelty and on one occasion bellowing at his wife to get her to obey him.
John Cording gives ex-detective Rough a quirkiness which adds to his appeal, his eccentricity ebbing as he shows he has intelligence and guile to solve the crime.
There’s a huge contrast in the two servants: Joanna Bacon as Elizabeth is deferential and intimidated by Manningham while Hannah Lee (Nancy) is ambitious, insolent and flirtatious.
There are very subtle lighting changes and the music is sometimes so low as to be almost inaudible as Ms Punshon lets the acting and the script dominate.
It’s an illuminating production and by the size of the audience on the night I saw Gaslight, it shows there is still very definitely a place for period thrillers done with style and flair.
Reviewer: Steve Orme