‘I MUST CLING TO MY HUSBAND!” OH NO YOU MUSTN’T… HE’S IN THE ATTIC…
James Dacre’s leadership of this twin theatre is certainly lively: a dark Oklahoma, King John in Magna Carta year, Arthur Miller’s forgotten The Hook (cheekily, since then Radio 4 has been claiming the “first” production). Add a powerful Brave New World, and now to ring the changes, a preposterously melodramatic , delightfully nasty neo-Victorian melodrama by Patrick Hamilton. Who is better known for bleak 30’s and 40’s novels like Hangover Square and Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky.
GASLIGHT itself is famous for the 1940 adn 1944 films, with Anton Walbrook and then Charles Boyer as the husband who convinces his fragile wife she is going mad, by hiding her things and fiddling with the gas pressure in a secret attic when he’s supposed to be out. It gave the psychiatric profession the term “gaslighting” for manipulative creating of self-doubt in another. The film crept so deep into the national psyche that a memorable pastiche in Round The Horne had Kenneth Williams in Armpit Theatre as the villain.
But this is the original play, realized with gleeful relish by director Lucy Bailey, and a quite brilliant set by William Dudley . It’s a gloomy drawing-room with uneasily slanted doors, intermittently transparent walls, and a ceiling which flares upwards at an angle to reveal horrid stairs and attics whenever necessary. The story is markedly different from the film: not least because the hapless Bella knows from the very start, that her husband is upstairs, and it’s him fiddling with the gas pressure. His emotional manipulation over her “madness” is more overt and harshly verbal; from the opening moments poor Bella (beautifully played straight and poignantly wounded by Tara Fitzgerald) is clearly a tormented victim of a Jonathan Firth who as Jack feels more like something out of Orton or Pinter in their nastier moods. It’s chillingly realistic, and very true to Hamilton’s novelistic vision in its uncompromising portrait of emotional bullying.
Rather less realistic is the arrival of a curiously stilted old police inspector (Paul Hunter) who reveals the husband’s brutal back-story and fiddles about forcing desk drawers: one could wonder by Bailey didn’t cut a bit of his repetitive and dated character-act wittering, and if it gets a transfer (which it 75% deserves) I hope she does.
For a time Bella nobly says “I must cling to my husband!” like a proper old-style missus, and refuses to co-operate; but once assured that he is not only a murderer but “has an interest in unemployed actresses” she goes right off the clinging idea. A very Patrick Hamilton woman: murder fine, adultery not so much. By the end of Act 1 the jocose old copper has informed her that she is married to a “tolerably dangerous” man; thereafter expect no modernistic volte-face to change that judgement.
Yet for all the clunkiness, and some slow passages, Bailey’s production has proper grip and power, rising to a final twisted revenge from Bella , superbly done by Fitzgerald, which had the matinee audience giggling with relief. And then a design moment which made us gulp. Hokum, yes: but Reader, I swallowed it…
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