Gaslight (Salisbury Playhouse)

Salisbury’s ”Gaslight” – a creaking melodrama proves a long and tiresome evening.

Gaslight opens Salisbury’s spring 2014 season not with a bang but with a whimper. The fault with this lies not with the actors or creative team so much as with a script that feels its creaking age. Patrick Hamilton‘s melodrama from 1937, featuring a moustache twirling villain, a simpering heroine and a tarty maid, feels archaic in a time where audiences’ taste have become more sophisticated. With us all gorging ourselves on a range of tasty box set crime drama’s from Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Killing and The Bridge we have come to expect twisting, turning narratives that keep us guessing whilst making us care deeply about the characters. The 2 ½ hours spent in this plays company drags in comparison with the time spent with Walter White et al.

The question of whether Bella Manningham is losing her mind, or is being manipulated by her husband for motive unknown is answered as soon as the play begins, the way the first scene plays out between these marital spouses, you wonder if a twist is inevitable, but it never comes, it plays out with no surprise or revelation at all. By the interval we know both cause and motive, and the second half then slowly drags us towards its dénouement.

There are some fine actors working in this production but they are either stuck with one dimensional characteristic’s, or have little time to make a mark. Laura Pyper keeps Bella (just about) the right side of irritating, and Daniel Pirrie menaces as the husband with a secret he wants to keep hidden. But Gemma Lawrence as the flirty, jealous maid and Maggie McCarthy as the housekeeper seem wasted in parts that function just to move the plot from a to b.

Joseph Marcell is served better in the role of Detective Rough, and it is a pleasure to witness an actor best known for his work in Fresh Prince of Bell-Air display his fine stage pedigree, he dominates proceedings with a lightness of touch and a bottle of whisky, though one can’t help but feel there is a slight coast in the playing of a part that is less then the sum of the actor.

Director Edward Dick tries his best to develop tension, with stretched out silences and an eerie sound score by composer Blair Mowat, but this mostly just serves to elongate an already long evening. The most impressive work is from lighting designer Tim Mitchell whose design is a thing of beauty, made up of long, deep, dark shadows and flickering lights.

There are many plays from the 1920’s and 30’s that are calling out for revival; Terence Rattigan’s After The Dance was a revelation to me at the NT a few years ago, but I feel Gaslight is one that should have stayed collecting dust. It proves a rather trying, tiresome evening.

– Kris Hallett