Review: Gaslight (New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham)

Kara Tointon stars in this revival of Patrick Hamilton’s Victorian thriller

From the opening scenes of Patrick Hamilton‘s thriller Gaslight, the audience isn’t quite sure where its sympathies should lie.

Jack Manningham seems a man of infinite patience, beset by confused and mildly hysterical wife Bella who veers between wild happiness and despair, he tries to please and calm her in all manner of ways. But appearances can be deceptive and gradually Hamilton unpeels the layers revealing a very different reality to the couple’s fraught relationship. And when a retired police officer appears one evening with a tale to tell, it seems that Bella may be in real danger from the man she loves.

Written in 1938 but set in 1871, Gaslight proudly proclaims its roots in Victorian melodrama. All the action takes place in one room in one evening and slowly but surely Hamilton turns the screws until the audience becomes unsure of everything.

Directed by Anthony Banks, the production relies heavily on the performances of its small cast as the plot gradually thickens. Kara Tointon, who is currently playing jazz singer Betsey in the new television drama The Halcyon, is a desperate Bella. Ever keen to please her husband she is also fearful of his anger and unsure of her own sanity. Unwilling to trust her own judgement, she constantly questions her thoughts and actions.

Rupert Young is initially all charm as her husband Jack, but as the drama progresses the mask slips and he becomes nastier and nastier. He mocks his wife before the servants, orders her to bed, harangues her and constantly tells her she is losing her mind.

But the star performance of the production lies with Keith Allen as the stranger Rough. Appearing out of the blue one night he tells Bella she holds the answer to a 20 year mystery – the unsolved murder of a young woman in this very house. And Rough needs her help to bring the perpetrator to justice.

Allen brings humour to the otherwise bleak domestic drama. Offering Bella medicine, he pulls a bottle of whisky out of his bag, asking for sugar he proceeds to drop lump after lump into his tea and needing a place to hide he disappears behind the book case. There is a touch of farce to his character and yet there is also a steely determination to find out the truth.

There are also strong performances from Charlotte Blackledge as the impudent maid Nancy and Helen Anderson as the housekeeper Elizabeth.

David Woodhead’s design keeps all the action concentrated into a small space with the gaslights of the title a central feature of both the story and the room. There are glimpses of gothic horror which don’t necessarily add to the action but do evoke the odd intake of breath from some audience members.

Gaslight is very much of its period, with the audience painfully aware of the powerlessness of Bella against her brute of a husband. And yet in that battle of the sexes there remains much that is resonant today. Not least the final scene which reveals all too plainly that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned as Bella turns on her husband and wreaks her revenge.

Gaslight runs at the New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, until 14 January before touring to Aylesbury, Woking York, Brighton, Cambridge, Sheffield. Richmond and Cardiff.

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