You may remember Gaslight from the 1944 film with Charles Boyer as the suave, sinister husband and Ingrid Bergman as his bullied wife, going mad amid the knick-knacks in their cluttered Victorian home. Patrick Hamilton’s original stage play, as revived here, is an altogether leaner affair. There is no back story, no honeymooning in Italy – indeed it’s clear as soon as the play opens that the honeymoon period is long gone in this marriage. There’s an edge of cruel impatience to Jack Manningham’s first words to his wife – “What are you doing Bella?” – that sets the tone for the whole play.
And Hamilton goes on to deploy many of the classic ingredients of a thriller – the echoing footsteps, the creepy noises and eerie dimming of the lights – to conjure something far more threatening than a supernatural presence or a violent intruder – the sadistic cruelty of a respectable but abusive husband. Although the play offers quite a good yarn, it’s this psychological dimension that interests us today. Hamilton was writing in the 1930s but his depiction of the methodical destruction of a woman’s sanity behind the solid front door of a Victorian gentleman is chilling.
For this to work you need to feel the hopelessness of Bella’s situation – the stifling nature of the house, the terrifying isolation of a woman whose husband insists that she is too mentally fragile to go out. You also surely need to feel a rising sense of panic, once Detective Rough has arrived and revealed to Bella just what sort of man her supposed husband is. For the first half we head deeper into Bella’s fear and confusion, as her husband bullies and torments her, then disappears for hours at a time, leaving her petrified as the gaslights inexplicably dim. The second half is a journey towards escape, but driven by a sense of urgency and fear.
It’s this tingle of panic that is missing from Peter Gill’s otherwise impressive production. The claustrophobia and misery is perfectly created in Hayden Griffin’s oppressive Victorian drawing room. The sheer weight of the heavy red curtains and cheerless furniture is enough to make you feel trapped, and Rosamund Pike’s pale, beautiful Bella flutters about this space like a caged bird. Her unhappiness reveals itself in her nervous eagerness to please and in her sudden outbursts of hope – a near-hysterical joy, for instance, at her husband’s suggestion of a trip to the theatre (which he withdraws).
This is all to the good and there is a delightful performance from Kenneth Cranham as the wise old retired detective who smells a rat and comes to Bella’s aid, armed with the truth, a sense of humour and a whisky bottle. But when it comes to the thrill bit of the thriller, the production doesn’t rattle you enough. This is partly down to the play itself, which is full of creaky, melodramatic twists. But it should be possible to recognise the melodramatic tricks and yet still be scared because of the psychological tension. Gill’s production doesn’t quite achieve this, partly because Andrew Woodall’s Jack is not quite sinister enough. He is certainly cruel and bullying, and even his flirting with the maid has a nasty, misogynist feel. But his nastiness tends to be on one note. He would be more terrifying if he shouted less, blew hot and cold, displayed
creepy, sadistic charm. We should fear, after all, that he might just coax Bella into freeing him at the last moment.
Not enough goosebumps then. But the production does trace Bella’s journey sympathetically, down to the wonderful sense of release when she opens the curtains at the end to flood the room with good, honest daylight.