“You’re the lady going off your head, aren’t you?” That’s the question. Is Bella Manningham stark raving mad or is her bullying, manipulative husband engineering her descent into lunacy? And, if so, then why is he doing it?
Patrick Hamilton’s vintage psychological thriller, Gaslight, makes uncomfortable watching in the modern era.
It opened last night at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate and, despite director Lucy Bailey’s arsenal of fancy modern tricks, it looks tired and dated.
Back in 1938, when it first premiered on stage, audiences were undoubtedly gripped by this story of spousal abuse, degradation and intrigue, but its thin plot doesn’t hold up to closer inspection.
The story takes an age to get going but largely consists of Tara Fitzgerald getting a verbal battering from her co-star Jonathan Firth.
Fitzgerald plays Bella, a wife on the brink, and she does it very well. There’s real terror in those tear-stained eyes and she looks thoroughly wretched.
Bella is entirely under the domination of her controlling husband, who takes every opportunity to humiliate, humble and belittle her until the poor woman believes herself insane.
The mustachioed Firth, as Jack Manningham, is so diabolic that, under the glare of the stage lights, he looks like the evil twin of his older brother (the saintly Colin).
But the play is devoid of all subtlety and the dialogue is beyond melodramatic. He shouts every line, tediously repeating them, and throwing her name into almost every sentence (who does that in real life?).
She, in reply, wrings her hands, shivers a little, and weakly answers, also repeating the same lines over and over again.
Into this unhappy household comes a mysterious stranger who purports to be a police detective (though never shows anyone identification and his scant disregard for police procedure, and a fondness for whisky, makes you wonder if he’s genuine).
Paul Hunter’s jovial Sergeant Rough is no more than a device to explain what the story is all about and the wild and improbable tale he tells defies logic and reason. There are more holes than in a piece of Gruyere.
Bailey cleverly uses video projection to reveal the upper floors of the house, which is impressive, only for the staging to be let down by a cheap shot executed right at the end. The sombre and threatening atmosphere is more down to lighting and music rather than a well constricted thriller.
And, yes, we get how thoroughly nasty the head of the household is without watching him awkwardly fumble with the housemaid for what seemed like an eternity.
Gaslight is creaking and clumsy but worth watching for Fitzgerald’s harrowing portrayal.
Running on the Royal stage until November 7.
Creaking and clumsy, the vintage psychological thriller Gaslight, is showing its age.