Friday, 24 July 2009

Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton, Kenton Theatre, Henley On Thames, June 2009, directed by Rachel Johnson.

Patrick Hamilton's Gaslight, first performed in 1938, is set against the backdrop of a gloomy and unfashionable Victorian London, at the time that the author calls 'the zero hour', the period 'before the feeble dawn of gaslight and tea.' Even though it may lack some credibility as a thriller, it radiates a certain period charm that still appears to satisfy both audience and players.

This unsettling drama explores the life of Bella and Jack Manningham. While Jack (Alex Nicholls) goes out each evening, Bella (Susanne Sheehy) remains at home alone slowly sinking into an abyss of fear and loathing. It is evident from the start that Bella's husband has complete control over his wife, slowly convincing her through a complicated web of deception that she is delusional and falling into madness.

However, the appearance of a former police detective by the eponymous name of "Sergeant Rough" shows that there is more to the tale than first expected. He brings to the quaking Bella, a sense of order that bullying Jack strives to undermine. Rough exudes a roguish confidence and resolve from the moment he enters the parlour brusquely advising Bella 'You are up against the most awful moment of your life and your whole future depends on how you act in the next hour.'It is also probably fair to say that Robert Booth brought to the part a much needed touch of humour and insobriety that contrasted with the otherwise suffocating Victorian set. Even though the final confrontation between despicable Jack and Rough did lapse into risible melodrama, the fault lies solely with Hamilton's text.

In addition, praise to Jennifer Rae as Nancy and Polly Mountain as Elizabeth who although minor characters represented a brighter normal life beyond Bella's 'prison'.The set was naturalistic and suitably 'heavily draped' with a 'dingy profusion of the period' hinting at 'poverty, wretchedness and age.' Nevertheless more could have been made of the flickering gaslight and the ghostly footsteps that so perturb Bella as she sits alone at night. They are after all a major factor in Bella's descent into madness.Overall, a professional production from Oxford based Tomahawk in Henley's bijou theatre from a strong and accomplished cast under the direction of Rachel Johnson.

(Originally written for Remotegoat )

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