Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Gaslight

Patrick Hamilton
Oldham Coliseum
03 February 2017 to 18 February 2017

First going bump in the night and putting the breeze up West End audiences way back in 1938, Gaslight has proved one of the most successful of thrillers ever since, filmed twice and regularly revived on stage by both pros and amateurs. In fact there’s been a spate of pro revivals just recently, with a national tour still doing the rounds and not to be confused with this Oldham production, which is the Coliseum’s own.

It’s a hoary old melodrama, set in the smog-shrouded London of 1871 and while theatrically it is well past its sell by date in lots of ways, it does have surprisingly contemporary connections with recent news stories of psychological abuse.

Spookily, Archer’s fans – who can always be spotted sitting in their cars in the nearby car parks until the 7.15 dash to the theatre – last night heard the latest dramatic developments in the control freak Rob saga, which overall has uncanny similarities with the situation in Gaslight…

Bella Manningham is becoming increasingly confused, Trinkets keep going missing, she’s lost a grocery bill and a picture has again been removed from the wall near the dining table. Her husband Jack is not all that sympathetic – in fact it becomes obvious very quickly that he’s a pretty nasty piece of work - with her lapses of memory and the maid laughs at her behind her back.

Then there’s the mystery of the flickering gaslights, which dim ominously each evening, oddly only when her husband is out of the house, as if his absence caused some sort of spooky loss of pressure.

And, has Bella really heard someone moving around on the top floor, the floor that is permanently out of bounds? Bella’s mother died insane, is Bella also losing her mind?

I seem to have seen Gaslight over and over again so I’ve been surprised that virtually everyone else I’ve spoken to about it never has. Luckily for them, this is an excellent introduction, certainly the best production of it I remember, one that plays down the melodrama to make it far more real than the script deserves.

Director Robin Herford has assembled a great team. Long-time collaborator designer Michael Holt provides a detailed Victorian drawing room, cunningly lit by Jason Taylor and populated by a vastly experienced and totally (as much as anyone can be in three acts of hokum) convincing cast who play it to the hilt.

Catherine Kinsella (MTA Best Actress 2014) is always excellent and here manages to give real depth to Bella’s predicament as she fluctuates between girlish glee at a promised theatre visit only to be plunged into deep despair as she doubts her sanity.  The first act in particular, a perfectly paced 50-minute dramatic arc, rivets the attention and speeds by and it is in large measure due to Kinsella’s performance.

Veteran, award-winning Paul Webster is the mysterious visitor who seems to know much more than seems possible about the house and its occupants and he delivers yet another attractively eccentric character.

With backing from a quietly nasty Damien Matthews as the husband, Amy Gavin as the flirty maid and Susan Twist as the housekeeper it is cast from strength and overall new life is breathed into the old potboiler.

Reviewer: Alan Hulme

Comments

Comment by Robert Beale

'Creaky' was the word that sprang to mind as we came out - and that's in reference to the piece (to which I was a newcomer), not the production or the performers. I agree with Alan about all their virtues, though I'm surprised he didn't suggest some discreet cuts in the last act. You find yourself wondering, at the outset, how a nice girl like that got married to a monster like this in the first place - though they clearly sleep in separate beds already. Maybe Damien Matthews should have done the bigamous husband slightly more smarmy at first (see Rob in The Archers). Then there was the smoke, puffs of which seemed to emanate from the fireplace during most of the action ... I thought we were going to find the chimney had been blocked by the hidden rubies higher up and that was why the fire wouldn't draw (fog doesn't behave like that). And I wondered whether the 'detective' would turn out to be the bad guy at the end. Must have seen too many Agatha Christies.

 

Comment by Diana Stenson

Yes this is a right old chestnut originating from the prolific pen of Patrick Hamilton and reckoned to be his finest psychological exploration based on the weaker character, with frighteners on the way.  Yes, the gas lights do dim (beautifully) and there are weird bumps in the night but not quite enough to evoke true tingles of terror (and I am a wimp).  As Alan says Catherine Kinsella is perfect as the forgetful unhappy young wife, desperate to please her bully of a controlling husband Jack.  Is poor Bella a victim of early dementia or is there a more sinister reason for the failing memory - which of course there is.  

The mysterious arrival of Sgt. Rough (shades of An Inspector Calls?) lifts the pressured atmosphere instantly as the Scottish comforting confidente who sets about the "case".  The admirable Paul Webster also brings the only comedy sequence of the evening - introducing an anxious Bella to the benefits of Scotch whisky. 

The final scene is as it should be but Damien Matthews, the dastardly husband, would surely put up more of a fight before the curtain falls?

Comment by Paul Genty

Strong cast, great set, Robin Herford's usual immaculate presentation but in some ways I wish he had chosen a different play. Like Alan I've seen this several times over the years and never really been convinced that it was much of a play, as mysteries go it tells you what's going on far too early, and as psychological drama well, The Archers currently has it beaten by quite some way, and you can't often say that...

The play's real value is in the way it preceded later, better works, from Dial M for Murder to An Inspector Calls, and set the genre for them to exploit.

Having said that, this cast really does marshal its forces well. The three leads are very good indeed - though if anything I'd have wished Mr Webster to be a a little less keen to play for warmth and little laughs.