You may’ve heard of gaslighting, the form of psychological abuse where a perpetrator persuades their victim, typically a spouse or partner, that they are losing the plot. Reeking of madness and manipulation, the theme has a lot of theatrical potential – and so it comes as no surprise that the phrase has its origins in Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play, Gas Light.
Unfortunately, across this production, Director Anthony Banks refuses to bring the contemporary horror of this phrase back to inform its Melodramatic Victorian origins. This is not a production about the violence of the mind, a biting clash of personalities that just so happens to find itself inside a period context. No, it’s a period story, sanitised in its historical bubble – and in leaving his production to stagnate beyond these two temporal filters, Banks has truly missed a trick.
It’s difficult to find enjoyment, originality or indeed thill in this simple revisitation of a pre-war historical pastiche. On paper, some of the lines bear a definite clout. “There’s a good child”, coos Jack Manningham (Rupert Young), the gaslighting husband to his young wife. In response to his wicked accusations, poor Bella (Kara Tointon) passionately cries, “If I do these things, I must certainly be going off my head”. In the script, Hamilton leaves room for interpretation. Until the final moments, either of the characters could be guilty of manipulation, or of exploiting the values of their time to get one over their partner.
But on stage, these revealing lines are delivered with too great a self-awareness. There are comic pauses before the most dated of utterances, and Tointon – all held breath and poised hands, breathy exclamations and nervous emphasis on every word – is over-directed beyond belief. Swimming in slow motion through the space, she poses in each movement, as if fully aware that she is being observed. Banks’s version is knowing in all the wrong places: it refuses to be informed by retrospective understandings of this play, but is far too deliberate and ironically insincere to let us truly experience those antiquated trembles.
And by being too knowledgeable about illness, madness, class and gender politics, Banks dilutes Gaslight’s central thrill. For a while, Mr. Manningham gets away with murder, remaining immune to his wife’s accusations by encouraging her to doubt her own credibility. It is through the small details, though, the dimming of the lamps as he sneaks around the house, that she pieces together a sense of suspicion. But small details are not the focus in this production. While Designer David Woodhead’s chintzy set is just distorted enough to whisper that something isn’t quite right – its contorted walls thrusting the ceiling into prominence, and forcing us to contemplate the all-important top floor – the rest of this production is all ghosts in mirrors, and hidden trapdoors, flashing lights, and supernatural glows. It’s kitsch right until it culminates in the type of satirical arrest that could’ve been ripped straight out of the pages of the Beano.
“You read meanings into everything, Bella dear”, chides Mr. Manningham. Meanwhile, the staged world around her gives no voice to such subtlety of interpretation. Here, meaning is screamed so loudly from every inch of this production, and you’d really have to be mad to miss it.