First published in The Times, Wednesday March 27 2019
Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play has long been a staple of repertory theatre. The “Victorian thriller in three acts” certainly supplies plenty of crowd-pleasing elements: shadowy setting, spooky sound and lighting effects, and plot revelations that can make an audience gasp.
Yet, in its depiction of a man manipulating his wife into doubting her sanity, the playwright and novelist’s work was also decades ahead of its time. The title gave rise to the term “gaslighting”, now used to describe subtle abuses of power, whether in the domestic context or in the workplace.
Clearly, this is a play that speaks to our times, and Kai Fischer’s production largely succeeds in revitalising Hamilton’s work, taking liberties with stage thriller conventions while retaining much of what makes the play engrossing.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
Fischer, who is also the designer, dispenses with much of the clutter of a naturalistic drawing room setting, to focus on a few essential props and pieces of furniture, all framed within an inky darkness. Esme Bayley’s Bella Manningham opens the play with a running commentary, drawn from Hamilton’s stage directions, introducing us to “the feeble dawn of gaslight and tea”. It is a recurring conceit in Fischer’s production, setting the protagonist at once inside and apart from the action, like a ghost haunting her own life.
This subtly unsettling atmosphere is augmented by Matt Padden’s sound design, a collection of noises and refrains that gradually infiltrate our consciousness. As the play progresses, Fischer deploys other devices that imbue the action with a faintly hallucinatory feel. One character only ever appears as a disembodied voice. Another disappears from view while her voice continues, as though throwing on and off some cloak of invisibility.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
The performances, too, confound our expectations. Both Bayley and Robin Laing as her husband Jack, who is first seen carefully moulding and manipulating the torso of a huge, incomplete sculpture, opt for precision and restraint, so that the simmering sense of jeopardy is repeatedly held in check. Meg Fraser is highly entertaining as the avenging Inspector Rough (traditionally played by a man with great moustaches) even if her exuberance occasionally feels out of step with the overall sense of understatement.
Restrained it may be, but Fischer’s production is no less compelling for its careful pacing. By blowing the dust off a popular favourite, the director allows for a somewhat deeper investigation of emotional abuse and domestic terror.