FringeReview UK 2017
A revival of Patrick Hamilton’s classic 1938 Gaslight starring Kara Tointon and Keith Allen, directed by Anthony Banks. Produced by Ambassadors Theatre Group and Smith and Grant Musicals it’s designed and realised through an immaculate 1870s drawing room compressed in a tromp l’oeil triangle by David Woodhead. Howard Hudson’s lighting is crucial; Ben and Max Ringham’s sound and composition memorably underscores the genre. Till February 11th.
Patrick Hamilton’s classic 1938 Gaslight returns as it were to his home town, in a revival starring Kara Tointon and Keith Allen, directed by Anthony Banks and designed as an immaculate 1870s drawing room compressed in a tromp l’oeil triangle by David Woodhead. Howard Hudson’s lighting is crucial: gas lights lowering and rising individually evoke the music of melodrama as surely as Ben and Max Ringham’s sound and composition, including a domestic piano.
It’s a production paying more overt hommage to the genre Hamilton was himself playing to when he set the play in 1871: melodrama. A pejorative term for over a century, Hamilton shows its roots branching out to a sustained modern study – rescuing thriller and melodrama in one. And it’s lent its title to a verb: gaslighting someone. If you’ve not encountered this work, you’ll know when to use it after this taut, barometrically pointed reading.
Till recently Hamilton himself’s been in need of rescuing, and his own classic status reaffirmed, which it increasingly has been since his 2004 centenary.
Gaslight’s a drama where villainy is far more rapidly unmasked to the vulnerable heroine than might be expected. Hamilton’s genius in both novels and plays is to invert the Whoddunit and even the Why-or-HowDunnit and concentrate on How To – get out of it.
Kara Tointon plays Bella Manningham, married for seven years to Jack (Rupert Young) and who seems to suffer a penchant for Munchausen’s. Jack asks her where certain objects are, their wedding picture on top of the piano, a grocer’s bill, and after she denies it works out where she might have hidden it – he’s got form here, often choosing her sewing box or the piano stool as a bullseye. Jack’s method are singular: he humiliates Bella by demanding both maids swear – kissing the bible – they’ve had nothing to do with it. Indeed they notice objects have vanished when asked to look round, whereas Bella denies anything’s amiss. Not that she dares admit she hears footsteps above her bedroom when nobody’s there, for instance.
Jack’s not going to take Bella to a play after all. There’s too much drama in the drawing room. And he reminds her, his struggle to save Bella from her own mother’s insanity may also end in an asylum after all, where her mother died at the age Bella is now. Tointon’s covered breathy voice describing an arc of distress contrasts with firmness and strength elsewhere. The carapace of fearful vulnerability is a leaden choker round her neck, thrown off at moments of revelation, and vindication. Tointon moves too from a back arched with submissiveness to rapid balletic movements shivering off her langours, indeed revealing something tigerish at the last.
In contrast to the older housekeeper Elizabeth (Helen Anderson) whose anxious servility volte-faces into alacrity, Nancy the maid’s all pert sneering, barely concealing her contempt for Bella. Jack openly flirts with her. Charlotte Blackledge’s almost self-caressing hands sashay from pert hostility and faux-coy to brazen come-ons and overt, even aggressive sexual appetite as she stalks round Jack, her voice hardening in lust.
Jack’s controlling psychopathy, his offering then withdrawal of treats, his humiliating and isolation of Bella, suggest stage villainy (and classic perennial abuse) and Bella agrees Jack would make a fine Hamlet. Young has the vocal energy and sudden physical menace but importantly a measure of sexual magnetism to make his conquest of Bella, indeed Nancy as well as others, understandable. What he lacks simply is age, and the last whisper of menace. A backstory twenty years old can’t fit this tyro.
It’s only when he leaves for the fleshpots and ex-Inspector Rough (Keith Allen) bursts in that Bella’s half-smothered instincts can breathe their own permission. Rough, deliciously named is more than a diamond: there’s explicit homage to Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff from The Moonstone. Allen delights puckishly in the role of a man who’s shed his role, of Inspector, but who can call on that professionalism to work his ends in an unorthodox, indeed strictly criminal way. He wants to dance, indeed his delight in relating to Bella the shocking history of this very house recall a touch of Sherlock Holmes. Yet this detective is very far from Holmes in manner. The medicine he prescribes for Bella is ‘between ambrosia and methylated spirits’ – scotch whisky. Indeed it works. Hamilton knew it wasn’t working for him and his dark joke isn’t missed by his audience. Allen’s warmly rasping baritone with its leaps of excitement is mirrored in his very real leaps of blindsiding discovery.
He also discovers Bella is a fine detective, who notes, as he doesn’t at first, the dimming of the gaslights. It means someone is using gaslight at the locked top of the house. Rough discovers to Bella a murder in this very room. He also reveals Nancy’s inadvertent role in alerting him to events: each character’s essential in this piece, and Nancy’s garrulous sneers have paradoxically served Bella in ways only Rough can act on.
With only Elizabeth to help them (Anderson’s transition from fearfulness to firm loyalty strongly etched) and later the surprise use of understudies Grace Osbourn and Adam Lilley, twists must be seen with no further hint here. Banks though ensures even those who know the play might be in for a surprise.
This is a first-rate revival of perhaps the classic stage thriller, and should encourage a revival of the celebrated 1929 Rope or indeed The Duke in Darkness from 1942, Hamilton’s underrated psychological masterpiece. Young and Blackledge characterize feline energy in their roles, as does Anderson with her benign cunning. But the evening belongs to the range Tointon brings to her psycho-Cindarella role, and the gravelly improbable Prince Charming ‘old enough to be your grandfather’ Keith Allen. Banks’ pace never slackens: everyone’s given enough rope at the end to manage any trick, or hang themselves.