The 21st century re-invigoration of Patrick Hamilton’s work has returned his plays to centre stage, and we were lucky enough to finally get a chance to see what is probably his most well-known work at The Coliseum last week.
Any review of this play will delightfully inform you of the same little-known-but-also-incredibly-well-known piece of trivia: Gaslight was the source of the term gaslighting, which describes the insidious practice of employing deceptive tactics over a long period of time, with the intention of causing a person to question their own sanity.
Insidious is a word that accurately recalls the mood presiding over this production, directed by the masterful Robin Herford. Slumped in his chair, apparently asleep with his back to us, Damien Matthews’ Mr. Manningham conjures anxiety from the moment the curtain rises. When he wakes and teases Mrs. Manningham with the fictional prospect of a trip to the theatre (but what to see: a tragedy, or a comedy?), everyone but her notes the malice in his smile; and the delight when he takes it away.
The production emphasises the play’s refusal to be seen in broad daylight – Gaslight is not plainly a psychological thriller, any more than it is simply a mystery story, or the tale of a decaying marriage. We are picked up and put down all over the place, never quite sure where we’ll land next.
A 21st century audience is likely to see Mrs. Manningham’s treatment by her husband as run-of-the-mill Victorian chauvinism – outrageous enough in the opening scene to tease a few dark laughs from the audience – but this production shows everything through a carnival mirror. The whole house, from the maids to the flickering gaslights, are working against Mrs. Manningham, her helplessness delicately played by Catherine Kinsella.
The oppressive chauvinism of the opening scene is immediately juxtaposed by the arrival of Inspector Rough, played close to the comical limit of this character by Paul Webster, who is clearly enjoying himself. Rough here is played perhaps comical to an indulgent length – but why not? Herford’s impression of the character is a fitting counterbalance to the barely buttoned-up malevolence of Mr. Manningham.
Webster’s Rough recalls an early Doctor Who, gadding about dropping self-aware one-liners about his own costume and proffering scotch described as intellectual medicine, seeming a dimension apart from the turbulent existence of the Manninghams. Even at the climax, when the villain has nothing left to lose, Rough never seems in any real danger, as though mystically above physical harm.
Playwright J.B. Priestley, known to have been a contemporary and an admirer of Hamilton’s work (funnily enough from Manningham, Bradford), would later write An Inspector Calls, undeniably one of the most well-known plays of the era. In it, Priestley channels Hamilton’s Rough with his famously mystifying Inspector Goole. There are, in fact, a number of fascinating parallels to be drawn between the two plays, but that is perhaps for another day.
Lighting Designer Jason Taylor does an excellent job on a play where use of light to sow anxiety is a key device. When each character claws at the light switch with the hook, the audience hold their breath, expecting a misstep, but every time the cast stay right on beat.
During pivotal scenes, the subtle lighting changes are a fitting canvas for the erratically shifting moods of the play, never settling.
That is in one thing that this production of Gaslight will not let you do: get settled.
There is no need for overt scare tactics and uncanny apparitions; Matthews’ Manningham is enough, swaggering across his living room ominously brandishing a fire poker. Herford’s Gaslight is an understated and nuanced production that lingers in the mind.
At the time of writing, you’ve got two nights left to check out the play. If you fancied soaking up some culture in Oldham this Saturday, why not head off to catch their last showing and make your own mind up?
YouTube video courtesy of That’s Manchester
IMG ‘JCF1779-700×394.jpg’ courtesy of Oldham Coliseum