Nearly 70 years after its premiere, Patrick Hamilton’s Victorian London-set psychological thriller Gaslight returned to the West End when Peter Gill’s revival, starring Rosamund Pike and Kenneth Cranham, opened last night (14 June, previews from 7 June) at the Old Vic for a limited season to 18 August (See News, 4 Apr 2007).
While Jack Manningham is out on the town each evening, his wife Bella (Pike), stays at home alone, believing she’s losing her mind: she can’t explain the disappearance of familiar objects, the footsteps overhead or the ghostly flickering of living room gaslights. However, questions about Jack’s behaviour and true identity are aroused following the unexpected arrival of Detective Rough (Cranham).
English novelist and playwright Hamilton (whose other big theatrical hit was Rope) wrote Gaslight for the stage in 1938. It was adapted for the British screen in 1940 and, four years later, was made into a much more famous Hollywood version directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her role as the psychologically terrorised young wife.
In the Old Vic cast, Pike and Cranham are joined by Andrew Woodall as the evil husband, and Rowena Cooper and Sally Tatum as housemaids who become embroiled in the evening’s intrigue. The production is designed by Hayden Griffin, with lighting by Hartley TA Kemp.
First night critics were all intrigued, if not shocked, by the Old Vic’s programming choice, but while most welcomed the revival of Hamilton’s admittedly old-fashioned and “creaky” piece, one found the play’s creakiness raised only inappropriate laughter. After her Whatsonstage.com Award-nominated performance in last autumn’s West End revival of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke, Rosamund Pike received a fresh round of warm notices for her latest frail and “luminous” period beauty – “fair Rosamund alone is worth travelling a long way to catch”, declared one critic. There was also praise for Kenneth Cranham, whose previous stage credits include the title role in An Inspector Calls, as the “wily” and “unexpectedly funny” retired detective.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 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… 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 Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Billed as a ‘Victorian thriller’, Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight was written in 1938. But it is that rare thing: a re-creation of an old form which works in its own terms. And it was fascinating to see Peter Gill's fine production silence the audience's mocking laughter and generate a creepily atmospheric tension … It would be easy to pinpoint flaws. Bella, though progressively de-stabilised, seems remarkably slow to grasp the sleuth's hints as to her husband's darker purpose. And, in establishing an authentic Victorian atmosphere, Hamilton sometimes lapses into pulp-fiction pastiche … Yet the play works because of Hamilton's grasp of stage effects, and because he presents us with Manichean good and evil … Andrew Woodall presents us unequivocally with a moral monster … Rosamund Pike also gives a good account of the persecuted Bella, famously incarnated on screen by Ingrid Bergman. Pike lends Bella a manic edge … But, palely beautiful and suffering valiantly, Pike also implies Bella is corrupted by her husband, and at the last confirms Auden's point that those to whom evil is done do evil in return … The performance holding the evening together is Kenneth Cranham's Detective Rough. Whiskered and sane, he also lends the old boy a certain friskiness. Gaslight is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a classic. But Gill's production, nicely designed by Hayden Griffin, brings out its old-fashioned virtues and proves it is more than schlock.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Wanted: one detective inspector to investigate the strange disappearance of the thriller from London’s Theatreland. Once they were everywhere, but until last night only the cheesy old Mousetrap remained as a reminder of the devious pleasures of the past. All credit then to the Old Vic for reviving the ‘Victorian thriller’ Gaslight with such aplomb … There was a good deal of the sado-masochist in Patrick Hamilton’s psychological make-up, and he brought his dark side brilliantly into play here. But there’s no doubt the melodrama still grips … Peter Gill directs a superbly judged production … Andrew Woodall proves thrillingly cruel and commanding as the psychotic husband, his every word cunningly calculated to make his wife suffer further, while Rosamund Pike breaks your heart as his pale, cowed wife … Kenneth Cranham is at once wily, kind-hearted and unexpectedly funny as the dogged police inspector … For those seeking old-fashioned thrills and chills, Gaslight remains just the ticket almost 70 years after its premiere.”
Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail (four stars) – “Luminous beauty is one of those phrases I have never really understood before. But seeing Rosamund Pike in the faint glow of stage gaslights, it finally made sense … In this agreeably gamey melodrama – set in the 1880s – Miss Pike plays a bullied, gullible young woman, Bella Manningham … Yes, (the play) creaks. Yes, the dialogue is at times hokey. And yes, some of the characters soon start to seem ludicrously overdone. This, though, is surely the point. Gaslight, in addition to being genuinely exciting, is an exercise in entertainment … It has an element of pantomime villainy to it … The Old Vic has in recent months hurled some Drama with a capital D at us. This strangely watchable show – directed, albeit a little ploddingly, by Peter Gill – is the jolliest thing I have seen here. And fair Rosamund alone is worth travelling a long way to catch.”
Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (two stars) – “Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight has long been a creaky old thriller beloved of amateur dramatics companies with over-eager props departments. Its revival at one of the West End's flagship venues is, therefore, something of a mystery, or at least considerably more of a mystery than anything Peter Gill's resolutely suspense-free production can offer. Not even Rosamund Pike, proving once more that she is to the period costume born, is enough to keep these gas-lamps flaring … Hamilton's writing ensures that even the most dim-witted follower of thrillers remains permanently two revelations ahead of the action… Pike treats this tosh with the utmost seriousness. She is a revelation as an unconfident, unwillingly medicated young woman, trapped in a very English Doll's House and left to twitter like a nervy songbird around her gilded drawing-room cage. Andrew Woodall unfortunately chooses to play her brute of a husband as a pantomime villain right from the start ... Kenneth Cranham, once more shrugging on the raincoat of an inspector calling during an evening of portentously foul weather, gently sends the whole thing up. Funny by Gaslight this might be, but that's nowhere near enough.”
- by Terri Paddock