Patrick Hamilton's 1939 psychological thriller is a comparatively unknown classic and its shock impact as a portrait of an abusive late 19th century marriage is undiluted in Lucy Bailey‘s tense and absorbing revival. The two film versions are timid travesties, though Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar in George Cukor’s 1944 movie, still radiant while being driven slowly out of her mind by a super suave Charles Boyer. There’s nothing radiant about Tara Fitzgerald at Northampton, just raw confusion and terror, a quality that evaded Rosamund Pike in the last London revival at the Old Vic in 2007. Even she thinks she’s going mad.
Fitzgerald’s Bella Manningham, literally walled up in William Dudley’s stark drawing room with receding perspectives and a hazily projected stairway to the secret attic, is both victim and unwitting accessory to a crime. Married for seven years, she and Jack (Jonathan Firth, uncannily similar, physically and vocally, to his brother, Colin), moved to this house six months ago. Each evening he goes out. The lights dim. She hears someone walking about upstairs.
Up there, the mystery man is pacing around, like some ghostly reincarnation of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman. Designer Dudley rather over-plays his hand with a big video close-up; but the point of the play is Bella's mental torture and disintegration, a process charted with scary detail and accuracy. Hamilton goes much further than Ibsen in making Bella’s condition so brutally obvious and modern. He bursts the bubble of period decorum with an almost anachronistic sense of psychology and observation.
And there’s a further complication when Jack’s flirtatious relationship with the maid Nancy (Alexandra Guelff) boils over in a scene of erotic frenzy. The police inspector Rough (Paul Hunter) coldly tells Bella that she is being systematically driven out of her mind.
Rough is an odd character, too, not a stock policeman but, in Hunter’s brisk, cheerily callous performance, part detective, part therapist, even part catalyst. He is revisiting the scene of a crime that happened twenty years ago and harbours a theory about a jewel thief. He gets a lot more than he bargained for in coming up against Bella, but you also get an alarming sense of his feeling that this is all in a day’s work, nothing exceptional about it.
Bailey turns the screw with every scene, until the conviction grows that Bella is enduring something far worse than any crime that might have been committed upstairs. The marriage itself is the scene of this crime. And Fitzgerald lays bare an inner turmoil to a degree that even she hardly touched on in her exceptional Hedda Gabler some years ago.
Gaslight runs at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton until 7 November