Patrick Hamilton’s 1939 psychological thriller Gaslight has not been seen in London for many years, so Peter Gill’s astutely cast revival comes as a bit of a shock. The setting is London in 1880, where the dank and yellow afternoon is pierced by the distant sound of a hurdy-gurdy: “I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls” is the production’s recurring tune – “with vassals and serfs at my side.”
At first, we think Bella Manningham (Rosamund Pike) is going mad as she has misplaced grocery bills, forgotten the fire, lost a picture from the wall. What is more, she thinks she is going mad. Pike flutters like a beautiful wounded bird in a gilded cage, beating at invisible bars in her sumptuous grey gown.
Her husband Jack (Andrew Woodall) is driven to distraction, though he taunts her with the promise of a theatre outing. But gradually we realise that this is an abusive marriage. Every night, Jack leaves the house. The gaslights dim as someone rummages about upstairs, pacing the room like John Gabriel Borkman. But can it be Jack? How does he get up there, and what is he doing in the attic, which is off-limits to Bella?
The mystery at once thickens and dissolves with the arrival of Detective Rough (Kenneth Cranham), a jovial cove, more Wilkie Collins than Conan Doyle, who is revisiting an old murder case – a murder that took place in this very house 20 years ago – with a theory or two about the identity of a putative jewel thief. Bella has been married to Jack for seven years. They moved to this house only six months ago…
Bella’s nerves are calmed by Rough pouring some whisky. A first night accident of knocking over a full glass found Cranham well prepared with an ad-lib to honour his character’s taste for the amber liquid, as well as that of the play’s author (who died a miserable alcoholic in 1962): “I could almost suck it from the tablecloth.” Some skulking around, an erotic entanglement with Sally Tatum’s young housemaid and diversions from her elder colleague Rowena Cooper follow, complicating Bella’s predicament.
In the George Cukor movie version (for which Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar), Joseph Cotten romanticised Rough to the extent of marrying the heroine, a variation which understandably incensed Hamilton, who had been just as angered by the first bowdlerised film version starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard. Kenneth Cranham’s Rough catches exactly Hamilton’s tone of wry, detached informality, and the actor blesses the role with his own special brand of unsentimental likeability.
Against this steady background, we see Rosamund Pike go to pieces and then find her feet in emotional turmoil, damaged but not beyond rescue if life should deal her a better hand in future. It’s a beautifully plotted performance in a play that still stings in its analysis of a cruel marriage as a criminal strategy.
Hayden Griffin’s set is so magnificently cluttered that you can’t enjoy any of the detail from halfway back in the stalls. Does the design have to be quite so old-fashioned? And shouldn’t we see more of the actors’ faces early on while still gaining the benefit of Hartley TA Kemp’s atmospheric lighting? The dimming and raising of the lamps is not quite right. But I quibble, Sybil. The Old Vic has a popular hit on its hands.
- Michael Coveney