The New Alexandra’s 2017 season kicks off with Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton. A psychological thriller, in the tradition of the famous Victorian melodramas, Gaslight follows Bella Manningham, who believes she is becoming mentally unstable until she receives a visit from Inspector Rough. The inspector reveals that, twenty years ago, a murder took place in Bella’s house and that her husband is the inspector’s prime suspect.
The tension is high throughout this performance; the conspiracy between Bella and Rough hangs on a knife edge, closeted in the living room, could be shattered by any one of the household servants – a constant, unfathomable presence who could either support or destroy their mistress. Patrick Hamilton cleverly builds an overriding sense of fear as seemingly the most innocuous of signals, the dimming of the flickering gaslights, heralds the arrival of a potential murderer.
Kara Tointon gives a beautifully crafted performance of Bella Manningham, revealing a complex, mutli-faceted character. She visibly crumbles under the pressure of her husband’s allegations that she is losing her mind; alternating between sitting motionless, frozen by fear, or wailing and clinging to her husband with uncontrollable desperation. However, as she listens to Rough’s explanation, Tointon’s Bella grows in strength. Steeling herself with deep breaths, Bella helps the inspector break into her husband’s writing desk and solve the decade’s old crime. Tointon’s transformation in the final scene is deeply satisfying, as she turns the tables on her husband with a bitter yet triumphant attitude.
One of the major issues faced by this production of Gaslight is the fact that the plot is rather predictable. Once Inspector Rough arrives at the Manningham household, he reveals his theory that Jack Manningham is in fact Sydney Power, and a dangerous murderer. I keep searching for an Agatha Christie style twist – perhaps Rough himself is the murderer – but there are no surprises, and we are fairly confident of the outcome for the majority of the performance.
It is to Keith Allen’s credit then, that he gives an intriguing performance as Inspector Rough. Allen is a mysterious presence, hinting a different sides of Rough’s personality. From a magician in a top hat with elaborate hand gestures, to a more suspicious character experienced in lock picking, and a joyous sense of childlike glee as he solves his crime, Allen is an enigmatic character. He relishes the comedic elements of the script, breaking the tension with physical humour.
Gaslight also gives a interesting account of female mental health, especially given that is was written in the 1930s. Historically, mental illness was seen as a feminine disease, that women are the weaker sex and their brains become overwrought. However, Gaslight is concerned with the abusive power of a husband over his wife, showing how Jack Manningham controls and manipulates Bella until she seriously believes she is mentally ill. This stark account of psychological domestic abuse is still incredibly relevant, and more terrifying than any murder mystery.
Although limited by a predictable script and some wooden acting performances, Gaslight is a deliciously thrilling experience with standout performances from Kara Tointon and Keith Allen.
Gaslight is at the New Alexandra until Saturday 14 January and tickets are available here.